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Our customers have noticed that in the past year or so the number of herbs not available at a given time has dramatically increased. This situation is true for all importers of Chinese herbs and herbal products. The reasons for unavailability can be sorted into three large categories: Government Regulations, Supply and Demand and Consequences of Nature. Though the three are not mutually exclusive, we will briefly discuss each separately and cite examples. We do not discuss here the lack of availability owing to pesticide contamination because we address that issue in our article on contamination. This refers to herbs that are often unavailable because we cannot find lots that do not contain pesticide residues. Examples of herbs that fall in this category are Ze Xie (Alisma), Tian Qi (pseudoginseng), Jin Yin Hua (Lonicera), Ju Hua (Chrysanthemum), Ren Shen (Ginseng), Gou Qi Zi (Lycium) and all Citrus herbs such as Chen Pi, Qing Pi, Zhi Shi and Zhi Ke etc.
This category can be divided into three sub-divisions:
Plants and animals on the endangered species list require a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) certificate proving the herb was cultivated and not taken from the wild in order to import an herb on the CITES list. This provision is enforced by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are various CITES listings according to the seriousness of the endangerment. We will discuss this issue in further detail in another issue of the newsletter. Obtaining a CITES certificate is time consuming and expensive. At the current time Spring Wind has CITES certificates for Tian Ma (Gastrodia) and Rou Cong Rong (Cistanches deserticola) and will soon have one for Mu Xiang (Saussurea). At present we sell an acceptable substitute herb for Mu Xiang, Chuan Mu Xiang (Vladmiria), but will be pleased to carry the official species when our CITES certificate is approved.
The FDA is charged with the impossible task of assuring food safety in the US. Thus, they monitor herbs that they feel can present a threat to the health of citizens. Unfortunately, there is no separate category of import for Chinese herbs for practitioner use so the FDA measures safety as if each item were in the untrained hands of the consumer. Thus, an herb that if used properly is not harmful and would not be prohibited if limited to practitioner use is necessarily controlled at import. This situation is made worse by the easy availability of practitioner-class Chinese herbs on the internet. The improper use of Ma Huang (Ephedra) in weight-loss and energy products promoted by the supplement industry spelled the end of import for that important Chinese herb. With Fu Zi (Aconite) and other items (that, in our opinion, should be available only through qualified practitioners) freely available to the public it is just a matter of time before the FDA feels it needs to limit the import of these items as well.
The lack of a ‘practitioner use only’ category of import also makes the argument for importation of herbs like Bing Lang (Arecae seed) and Da Fu Pi (Arecae husk) difficult. Fresh Bing Lang is commonly mixed with other substances and chewed by certain portions of the populations of many Asian countries. Increased rates of mouth, throat and tongue cancer have been noted in these populations. Also, this habit is seen as addictive, like cigarette smoking or tobacco chewing. In Chinese medicine the herb is used for short periods of time and only the water-extracted liquid of the dried herb is consumed. Thus, contact with the tissues of the mouth and throat are brief and short-term compared with the daily chewing of the uncooked herb, and there is no indication that anyone has ever developed cancer from or become addicted to drinking decoctions of Arecae. Further, there is no evidence that the husk of the plant is either carcinogenic or addictive as it is not chewed
in Asia or anywhere else. But, since we do not currently limit availability of this item to practitioners only, the FDA sees it as a danger and monitors its import. Without the existence of a practitioner-only category of import and industry control of sales only to practitioners, there is little the Chinese medicine community can do to argue that the herb is safe if used responsibly.
Aside from herbs like Bing Lang and Ma Huang which the FDA sees as dangerous and/or addictive, the FDA also looks closely at herbs that have high levels of contaminants (such as pesticides or heavy metals) or contain prohibited substances such as banned pesticides, preservatives or food coloring. Recently, the FDA has been requiring companies to carefully test all Hong Zao and Hei Zao (Jujube dates) when they are imported because several companies were selling the item with prohibited food coloring or sweeteners or they did not declare on their label the additives the product contained. This test is time consuming and expensive and thus, many suppliers do not have Hong Zao or Hei Zao.
On a similar theme, the FDA is recently denying entry to most products that contain or consist of excrement (such as Wu Ling Zhi and Can Sha). They also do not allow products made from humans to be imported (think Zi He Che - placenta).
Aside from monitoring the CITES issues mentioned above the USDA is also responsible for protecting the flora and fauna of the United States, including the agriculture industry. This relates to the import of herbs in two ways. First, it means the USDA is on the lookout for any product that may introduce a pathogen into the country that can affect our agriculture production. Citrus products such as Chen Pi, Qing Pi and Ju Pi are required to be heat treated to eliminate possible pests that would infect our citrus orchards. Fu Xiao Mai is not allowed entry at all for fear that it may carry a pathogen that could damage the wheat industry in the US.
Second, the USDA aims to prevent invasive plants from drastically changing ecosystems. Invasive plants such as Tu Si Zi (Cuscuta) are only allowed into the country in a form that obviates the possibility of the seeds propagating. Hua Jiao (Zanthoxylum) is another example of an invasive plant. It is also prohibited from entry into the US in any form that could propagate.
Market forces can cause price increases that, in effect, take herbs out of the market. Though this phenomenon can be the result of actual shortages, often it is hoarding that is the culprit. Unscrupulous brokers sometimes purchase large percentages of a certain herb’s production soon after harvest and hold that herb in storage until the lack of supply raises the prices. They then gradually release the herbs into the market slowly at profit margins double or triple the average.
General societal trends can affect prices greatly. For example, recently in China the practice of yang sheng (養生) or “life enhancement” has become quite popular. Bookstores are filled with Yang Sheng books promoting the use of herbs like Dong Chong Xia Cao (Cordyceps), Gou Qi Zi (Lycium), Wu Jia Shen (Acanthopanax), Ren Shen (Ginseng), etc. The price of these herbs has risen with the upsurge in demand. The shift of population from the countryside to the cities in China is another example of societal trends affecting herb pricing. One of our suppliers recently reported that he had visited a rural site in Northern China recently and saw large amounts of unharvested wild-grown Huang Qi (Astragalus) and Chai Hu (Bupleurum). He said that the locals explained to him that almost all of the young residents had moved away to the cities and no one was willing to go out and harvest the wild herbs.
Since many herbs are region specific, that is, growing only in certain regions, when a natural disaster strikes a region the herb harvests for that area are inevitably affected. This can create shortages of an herb or make high quality herbs too expensive to purchase. Changes in global weather patterns have wreaked havoc on the herb market over the last several years with floods and droughts affecting large regions of China. Even in the US the late snowfalls in Wisconsin greatly reduced the American Ginseng harvest of 2010-2011 and subsequently, caused prices to soar. Spring Wind purchases in small quantities meant only to last until the next harvest. While this gives us the fresh herbs we love it also increases our exposure to the price pressures of the current market.
Obviously, there is little herb growers and suppliers or the Chinese medicine community can do to obviate the effects of floods and droughts (though reducing our carbon footprint is a good start). Herb unavailability owing to government regulation is something we all can work to change. What Spring Wind has advocated for many years is the establishment of a category of herbs and other substances used in traditional medicine that are imported specifically for use for the traditional medicine community and sold only to qualified practitioners. It would be incumbent on the Chinese medicine community (venders, associations etc.) to show that it could self-regulate these substances and not allow their sale to non-practitioners. Accurate adverse event recording would also be required though that is no different than the current status under the dietary supplements regulations.
There are two steps that are needed to clean up the Chinese herb industry as it now operates. First, potentially harmful agents such as Fu Zi (Aconite) must be made unavailable to the general public. A quick Google search shows how much work we need to do in this respect as a quick search turns up 10 web sites selling Fu Zi or Fu Zi containing products in the first 5 minutes
If an untrained person were to purchase this Fu Zi and take an inordinate amount or is of a constitution not suited to such a hot, acrid herb, he or she could easily have a severe reaction to the herb. Such an event, if brought to the attention of the FDA would put pressure on them to make the item unavailable and then, like Ma Huang before it, a valuable and, when properly given, safe herb will become unattainable.
We, at Spring Wind Herbs, frequently go on line to assure ourselves inappropriate Spring Wind products are not available for sale to untrained parties. In a newsletter several months ago we asked our customers to keep an eye out for this as well and to notify us if they found anything in the vast internet. We once again request that if you see any inappropriate Spring Wind herb or product being made available to non-trained parties that you notify us. We are sure that other herb companies feel the same way and they too would ask that you notify them if their products are being sold to categories of consumers to whom they would not themselves sell these items.
If we are to request establishment of a separate category of import (apart from food, drug, dietary supplement or cosmetic) we, as an industry, must not only show that we can control the distribution of potentially dangerous items, but also that we track all items and also track any adverse events. Spring Wind has lot numbers on all of our products and can track them from the moment of import or production. Thus, if we import 500 pounds of Fu Zi we can report where each pound went and when it went there. This is required of organic herbs, but we nonetheless, do it for all of our products. If a recall is needed for any reason
we are then in a position to process it. If all herb importers were to agree to do this it would put us in a better position to establish a practitioner-only category of import.
It is our opinion that, before we approach the FDA or other governmental agencies, Chinese herb importers and suppliers need to take the above steps to show that they could competently operate a program that keeps practitioner-only herbs in the hands of practitioners only. Companies will respond to practitioner pressure on this account since they rely on practitioners for their business. Thus, we hope that practitioners will let their suppliers know that it is important to them to know that practitioner-only herbs are controlled and tracked. Failure to proceed in this way leaves the Chinese medicine community open to the ever-increasing risk of having many of our most valuable herbs banned. Perhaps, if these herbs are pre-emptively kept out of inappropriate hands this, in itself, may obviate the need to establish a separate category of herbs or at least mitigate the chances of more of our herbs being made unavailable.