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Herbal medicine at risk

September 19, 2010

With strict European legislation due to come into force next April, will some age-old herbal remedies on sale in health food stores today become, quite literally, a thing of the past?

Passiflora (Passion flower)
Passion flower is a remedy for insomnia and anxietyImage: Marinella Trovato

Industry professionals met in Bologna, Italy last week for a conference held at SANA, the international natural products trade fair, to discuss the future of their sector. From April 2011, all member states will have to comply with a European Union directive which specifies that all herbs produced, manufactured and sold in the EU must be classified as either foods or medicines.

Medicinal licences for herbs

A field of hyssopus officinalis
Hyssopus officinalis is a herb used to treat respiratory disordersImage: Marinella Trovato.

Those working in the sector have for a long time been campaigning for regulation and greater control, but the new authorization and licensing requirements have enormous implications for the herbal medicine industry throughout the European Union. Marinella Trovato, President of S.I.S.T.E., the Italian Society for Herbal Science and Technology in Milan, said there is great concern about market ramifications. "A lot of companies are worried about the possibility that in the future they cannot use a lot of plants for food application."

Many small producers and manufacturers of medicinal herbs will no longer be able to afford to do so, unable to cover the cost of authorization licences for medicinal herbs, Trovato added.

UK-trained herbalist, Marco Valussi, speaking at the conference, warned that the terms of the directive would put herbal remedy manufacture in the hands of large pharmaceutical companies, and this was likely to narrow the range of medicinal herbs on the market.

Not all the medicinal plants are, economically speaking, interesting for the big companies," said Marco Valussi, who works in Italy as a consultant in the field of medicinal plants and vegetable-based products. "These companies might decide to focus on maybe five or ten important herbs and leave behind the other ones. So the consumer could have a reduced range of choices."

A field of eschscholzia (California poppy)
Manufacturers will need an expensive medical licenceImage: Marinella Trovato

Loss of business

In Italy, the profession of the herbal practitioner who can treat patients is not legally recognized and herbalists are only qualified to make and sell their products in shops called erboristerie, the equivalent of health food stores in the UK and Reformhäuser or Bioläden in Germany. But the new classification will signify a huge loss of business as these stores will no longer be able to sell many of their most popular products, such as passiflora, ginseng and valerian, which will only be available in pharmacies.

Marco Valussi showed concern that some of the less common herbal remedies may disappear completely from the European market. "Obviously, we all want the best quality and lowest risk possible for consumers, but we also want the consumer to have the possibility to use plants." He added that the directive will also put consumers at an economic disadvantage. "Buying at the pharmacy usually means that you pay much more than if you buy at the erboristeria."

UK herbal practitioners at risk

Michael McIntyre, a Professor of Herbal Medicine at the University of Middlesex and Chairman of the European Herbal Practitioners Association, said in the UK, where herbal practitioners are allowed to treat patients directly, the implications for their sector are equally worrying.

Michael McIntyre
McIntyre is worried herbal practitioners will lose access to a large range of medicinesImage: privat

As a practitioner, he said, he will likely lose access to a large range of medicines that are made up for him currently by manufacturers to his order for individual patients. "My patients are already very alarmed when I tell them that this medicine that you've been taking which is doing you so much good is not going to be available next year."

Many commonly used Ayurvedic, Chinese and Tibetan herbal mixes, which are perhaps not medically recognized in the EU, will no longer be legally available. The directive aims to safeguard consumers and ensure the quality of commercialized herbal products, but Michael McIntyre believes it will, ironically, have the opposite effect: "Patients or the public who want to use herbal medicines will be forced to go onto the internet and buy from unsafe sources, or indeed visit backstreet bogus practitioners who haven't got proper training."

Statutory regulation

Michael McIntyre is campaigning for statutory regulation of herbal practitioners in the UK, and for herbalists to be given a new pan-European professional status as certified healthcare professionals. According to government surveys, he said, a quarter of the UK population had actually used herbal medicines in the last two years. "It's important that they know that the people that they are going to see are properly trained and accountable, and that's what regulation will do."

As a practitioner with decades of experience, Michael McIntyre believes it is a measure which not only makes sense for the herbal industry and consumers, but also for the EU's public health services. Safe, gentle herbal remedies can be used to treat numerous conditions from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to headaches and insomnia, avoiding the need for prescription medications.

"Drugs are costing huge sums of money and the governments really can't afford this," Michael McIntyre said, "I really believe that herbal medicine could go a long way to saving the health budgets of all the EU member states."

Author: Dany Mitzman
Editor: John Blau