Chinese Herbal Medicine has been practised for thousands of years and is one of the most popular complementary therapies in the world. The therapy has been used to treat conditions such as asthma, depression, eczema and irritable bowel syndrome. Chinese Herbal Medicine itself utilises the extracts and essences of flora and fauna within formulas taken as teas, tinctures or capsules.
These formulas often contain up to 15 different herbs. But in a world concerned with ecological sustainability and ethical practices, how can we be sure the products we take are safe and not damaging the environment or wiping out endangered plants and animals?
As western societies have become switched on to the benefits to be had from Chinese Herbal Medicine, the demand for the products has increased. While the Far East looks to supply that demand, there must also be a question of how sustainable that supply is and if strict guidelines on extraction and safety are in place. Although the majority of Chinese medicines do not contain products from endangered species (plant or animal), some have been known to include products derived from tigers, elephants and bears. There are a number of societies around the world that monitor the trade and have set down codes for suppliers to abide by.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was set up to make it illegal for anyone to buy or sell a product that derives from an animal or plant on the list of critically endangered species. Operation Charm is a joint initiative set up to combat this illegal trade in London and since its launch in 1995 the Metropolitan Police have seized over 30,000 items. Its dedicated Wildlife Crime Unit continues to make arrests and helps prosecute traders across the capital.
Chinese herbal products fall into categories of medicine, food and cosmetics. In the UK, these are monitored and enforced by trading standards agencies where legal requirements are in place to govern their use. Herbal formulas are seen as medicines and therefore must have product licences to be marketed and be safe and labelled in accordance with the Medicines Act of 1968. Some formulas that are exempt from this fall into the ‘unlicensed herbal medicine’ category but still should be safe and labelled correctly.
Anything that is not taken as a medicine is classed as food, a food supplement or drink and this will include things like herbal teas. These foods must meet strict guidelines as set out by the Food Safety Act that includes and governs things such as labelling, ingredients and quality. There should also be no false descriptions or misleading claims for those foods that are called ‘health foods’.
Cosmetics include any product that comes into direct contact with the skin, hair, nails, teeth, lips or genitals and whose purpose is to help protect, clean, perfume or correct. Some cosmetics are exempt from licensing however medicines and cosmetic products generally are licensed and are enforced by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
As a consumer, you can ensure that the products you buy from a Chinese Herbal Medicine shop are safe and ethical by using a local practitioner or outlet that abides by a set of codes and ethics laid out by a professional association or body. By doing this, the practitioner or outlet is using a supplier who has the necessary license to sell Chinese Herbal products.
By: Shaun Parker
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