Europe Cracks Down on Herbal Meds

By Dirk Hanson 05/16/11

Hundreds of herbal remedies have been removed from European shelves under new EU regulations—bad news for addicts favoring alternative treatments.

Do you know what’s in your Echinacea?
Photo via thinkstockphotos

Patients who favor the herbal route when it comes to treatment will have to work a little bit harder in Europe, as the European Union has just established new regulations to protect consumers from herbal harm. In countries where herbal medicines traditionally have been more popular than in the U.S., only herbals that have been formally licensed, prescribed by a registered “herbal practitioner,” or have a well-established track record of safe use will be permitted after products currently on the shelves reach their expiration dates. The new rules were born out of concern that herbal remedies were interfering with the action of prescription medications such as blood thinners and oral contraceptives. In addition, the regulations are designed to prevent adulterated products, a common problem that also complicates the drug interaction picture. Numerous studies of herbs coming to Europe and the U.S. from Asian countries have show impurities—chiefly in the form of added amounts of generic prescription drugs. Except for herbs defined as “traditional medicine,” meaning they have been used widely for at least 30 years, herbal medications will now have to be approved by the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Research by the agency shows that about one in four British adults has taken an herbal medicine in the last two years. 58% of customers believed the products to be safe because they were “natural.” The British Herbal Medicine Association said that more than 50 herbs, including the so-called natural Viagra called “horny goat weed” (found in Osama bin Laden’s medicine cabinet as we reported), hawthorn berry, and wild yam would no longer be available in British health food stores.
Safety first—but makers of herbal remedies say the cost of the new licensing process, variously estimated at between $125,000 and $190,000, could put them out of business.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]