Monday, March 22, 1999 Published at 17:20 GMT
Herbal medicine fights for its future
Garlic is a major component of some herbal remedies
Herbal practitioners and consumer groups have warned the government that heavy handed regulation of the industry poses a serious threat to jobs.
The warning comes as Lords Health Minister Baroness Hayman pledged to tighten controls to ensure only quality products were available to the public.
Industry representatives said European Commission proposals to licence all herbal remedies would drive hundreds of products off the shelves, and threaten the livelihood of many businesses.
At present, some herbal remedies which contain only natural ingredients are unlicensed and do not have to comply with any safety or quality standards.
Lady Hayman has asked the Medicines Control Agency, which ensures medicines available in the UK meet safety and quality standards, to meet EC officials to discuss their proposals.
She said the EC licensing plans would have a "relatively limited" impact on the UK industry.
But herbalists claim that the plans would drive hundreds of shops and centres out of business and could result in the loss of thousands of jobs.
Licences for medicines can cost up to £1m to obtain and the industry says the plans would mean the UK would have to accept European recommended daily limits on vitamins which are currently much lower than in this country.
The changes could double the cost of essential vitamins and mineral supplement, it is claimed.
Five million people a day use treatments such as garlic extract, ginseng and evening primrose oil.
Britain's £350m-a-year herbal medicine industry employs 5,000 people and the use of some remedies, such as St John's Wort, has increased by 3,900% in the last three years.
James Fearnley, commercial development director of Leicester-based The Herbal Apothecary, which supplies a range of remedies, said: "We want to see a change in the regulations that will protect the consumer but the EC proposals are totally inappropriate.
"You cannot regulate herbal medicines in the same way you regulate regular medicines."
He added: "With something like aspirin, you have a number of synthetic ingredients that can be subject to clinical trials and monitored.
"With a herbal headache remedy such as Fever Few, you have natural ingredients that will vary widely depending on things like soil conditions, the time of harvest, climate and hundreds of other things.
"Herbal remedies are completely different and much more sensitive and holistic."
Mr Fearnley said that at the moment regulations are preventing herbal medicine manufacturers from giving consumers information.
Unless scientifically proven, remedies cannot state on the label what conditions they can treat or cure.
He said: "The current regulations are preventing information from getting through to the consumer.
"We want to see better labelling and regulation but it has to be appropriate to the industry.
"Ideally, we and the rest of the industry feel that we would like to be regulated by the Food Standards Agency rather than under the Medicines Act because we feel that would be more appropriate to what we do."
She said: "The Government's overall objective for herbal medicines is that the public should have access to a wide range of safe and high quality herbal remedies, with appropriate information about the product and its use.
Jonathan Monckton, director of the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, said any attempt to impose a blanket requirement for licences was inappropriate.
He said pan-European guidelines were needed so that a distinction could be made between herbal medicines which claimed to have a curative effect, and herbal "feel-good" supplements, which should not need a licence.
He said: "Herbal remedies deserve special consideration because they have been available in the marketplace for generations and many people find them helpful.
"There are some good research results showing that people benefit from them, but equally there is evidence that some of them are harmful or have a toxic effect."