Saturday, 6 June 2009

Given enough (EU)rope...we can all hang...

I am a herbalist, I have been a herbalist all my working life, I grew up with herbal medicine.

Herbal medicine has never presented a problem or public threat…ever. Now though, the eurocrats in the European parliament have got their teeth into herbal medicine, specifically, over the counter herbal products. The Brussels bureaucrats want a slice of the action, and under the legally and statistically unsupportable excuse of protecting public safety, they have decided that companies producing herbal products for the “over the counter” market must register their products by producing and submitting, production, chemical, safety and historical data for each product. Not a big deal, you may think. Seems like a good idea, ensuring product quality. The problem of course, is the usual one with excessive government, WE HAVE TO PAY.

We have to pay an awful lot in fact. They do, after all have a lot of mouths to feed in Brussels. We also have to do all the work of course! The cost is so high that most herbal companies will be put out of business instantly in March 2011 when the Directive becomes law. Even the largest companies in the business are apparently doing nothing…giving up on the money grabbing European bureaucracy and concentrating on the US and rest of the world. This will mean the end of companies, stores and jobs, not to mention our basic human right to access herbal medicines as and when we need them.

I don’t think there has ever been an event in the history of any industry so terminal, and yet we seem to be sliding inexorably towards the precipice without anyone really appreciating the full potential effect of this directive or how it directly contradicts and removes our fundamental human right of choice in the medicine we use.

Most importantly, this Directive is a first in law making. It directly legislates for a tradition. A tradition that is arguably the oldest we have. Just take a look at the name of the directive…THE TRADITIONAL EUROPEAN HERBAL MEDICINE DIRECTIVE…in other words the European law makers are actually telling us they are legislating for our traditions…our culture…our history. The precedent being set by this directive is truly startling. When this directive reaches full implementation in 2011 it will effectively allow Europe to legislate for all our traditions and cultural/historic traditions and rights. Just wait for the TRADITIONAL EUROPEAN LANGUAGE DIRECTIVE, or maybe…THE TRADITIONAL EUROPEAN RELIGIONS DIRECTIVE. All the traditional British languages and all traditional British religions are of course far younger than the tradition of herbal medicine.

So what exactly am I talking about? Read on…

Initially, I would like to draw to your attention to some interesting lines from the TREATY OF ROME, establishing the European Union; It outlined some important cultural considerations.

The section entitled; Culture, article 128, states…

…The community shall contribute to the flowering of cultures of the Member states, whilst respecting their national and regional diversity…

…Action by the community shall be aimed at…improvement of the knowledge and dissemination of the culture and history of the European peoples…conservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage of European significance…

…The community shall take cultural aspects into account in its action under the other provisions of this treaty…

It is informative to follow those lines with a brief look at history:

The oldest surviving written traditional system of herbal medicine in Europe, is the Welsh system of medicine. It can be found translated into English as ‘The Physicians of Myddfai’.

The origins of this unique system of herbal medicine lay so far back in time that they were explained in the legend of ‘The lady of the Lake’. The legend was first written down at about the same time as the system itself began to be recorded in writing, around the early part of the thirteenth century. ‘The Physicians of Myddfai’, were indeed real people; Rhiwallon, physician to Rhys Gryg, a prince of South Wales, and Rhiwallon’s three sons, Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einion. To this day people claim descent from this family!

The ‘Lady of the Lake’, the originator of the herbal formulas that Rhiwallon and his sons became so skilled in the use of, is said to have been the mother of Rhiwallon. We do not know her name, but we are told that Rhiwallon’s father first met her when she approached him from the surface of the lake called ‘Llyn y fan fach’. This is near the present day village of Myddfai on the western edge of the Black Mountains.

To cut a long story short, the Lady and Rhiwallon’s father married after a long and arduous courtship. She seems different and belongs to a group of people who are separate from the Celtic peoples, appearing more primitive in their ways, they do not appear to have had iron, for example, and are thought to be some of the earliest native peoples of this part of Britain. The marriage did not last, as it appears the Lady had difficulty dealing with the life and customs of the Celtic peoples. She leaves and returns to the lake. One day, whilst walking in the mountains near Llyn y fan fach, Rhiwallon meets his mother at a place still bearing the name ‘Llidiad y Meddygon’, ‘Physicians Gate’. At this meeting the Lady gives Rhiwallon a bag full of herbal prescriptions and even shows him where to find the herbs. She takes her leave, imploring Rhiwallon to use the information to relieve the suffering of mankind.

Whilst this story may seem quaint and even meaningless at first glance, it, in common with all myths and legends, is merely a culturally colourful way of imparting some deeper truth. It demonstrates that herbal medicine and the use of herbs is so important and so ingrained in our culture and goes back such a long way that its origins have become part of myth and legend, part of not just our shared history, but our shared imagination.

If we go back to 930 AD, then Howel Dda (Howel the Good) was King of Dyfed. He was an inspired Law maker and his laws governed the lives of ordinary Welsh folk until the time of Edward the First. However, Howel also formulates laws regarding the work of herbalists and some of the formulas from the ‘Physicians of Myddfai’ can be traced to his time. Earlier still, in the time of Prydain ab Aedd Mawr (this mans first name is the name of our country of course), around 1000 BC, medicine was included among the ‘nine rural arts’ and the practitioners of medicine were the ‘Gwyddoniaid’ or Men of Knowledge. During this time period the Men of Knowledge are said to have become the Druids, Bards and Ovates, with the Ovates being responsible for medicine. As early as 430 BC (before Hippocrates) there is evidence, from the laws of Dynwal Moelmud, that the art of herbal medicine was protected and encouraged by the state.

It is obvious that when we combine myth and actual history concerning herbal medicine in Britain it appears that the ‘Physicians of Myddfai’ contains information which may indeed originate in pre-Celtic times. In other words, this cultural tradition extends way back into the mists of the past. How old does a tradition have to be to qualify for exemption from meddling and legislation?

Our herbal knowledge did not simply get written down and remain static. It is again clear from the ‘Physicians of Myddfai’ that trade in medicines and the constant search for new herbs via trade and cross cultural contact was an important part of the process. The ‘Physicians of Myddfai’ lends from Hippocrates and the herbs mentioned shows how herbs were traded with not only other Europeans but the Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians.

We British have enjoyed, the basic human right to use, trade and develop herbal medicine over the centuries. Even King Henry the Eighth produced the ‘Herbalists Charter’ to protect the rights of herbalists. Ironically, this charter is still part of the law, not only of Britain but of the USA too! Herbal medicine and the free availability of herbs has been a standard part of the British landscape for millennia. Today, several universities offer degrees in Herbal Medicine along with further qualifications, such as doctorates.

Britain has become almost unique in Europe for its continuous use, development and innovation in the production of herbal medicine. People from all over the world come here to study the subject. In Britain our herbal tradition is unbroken.

Our fundamental historical, traditional, cultural and human right, and freedom to access and use herbal medicine, as well as develop and adapt herbal medicines is unbroken…until 2011! I demand that this tradition, of immense European cultural significance, be conserved and safeguarded.

So, what are the problems with the European Directive?

Firstly, if we look at the statements taken from the Treaty of Rome above, it would appear that traditional, cultural, historic etc would mean ‘untouchable’ in terms of legislation. In fact, we should not need to be told that our historic traditions and cultures are things that should never be tampered with. This Directive though is called the ‘Traditional Directive’…legislating for tradition/directing tradition. What legal right has anyone got to legislate for tradition? Is the very title of the Directive legal? How old does a tradition have to be before it can be immune to legislation?

The European Directive calls for all herbal products on sale over the counter in health food stores, pharmacies etc. to undergo a registration process by April 2011 in order for them to be allowed for sale.

The MHRA is in charge of implementing the directive in the UK.

Registration is a long, drawn out process of submitting paperwork regarding the quality of the product, the production methods, the chemistry of the herbs, the historical uses etc. The process can take up to 2 years and cost anything over ten thousand pounds per product. Some take a lot longer and cost a lot more of course. Needless to say, it is the producer, we, that have to do all the work and pay all the money. This is particularly interesting at a time of recession when the government is bailing out companies that have failed. Here we are, in the herbal industry, in the same recession and effectively having to pay to go out of business. Where is the compensation…the redundancy plan….the rescue package…the financial assistance? In short, there is no help, no route to the market for small companies without enough money. In 2011 we just pack up our lives work, forget that herbal medicine is one of our basic freedoms and rights and just walk away!

In Britain today there are a lot of herbal companies, just like the one I work for (Swiss Herbal Remedies, based in Cardiff). Most of these companies, just like us, are small to medium sized. It does not take a financial genius therefore to see immediately that the cost of these registrations, apart from the ongoing work involved, means certain bankruptcy! We provide over 40 herbal products to the health trade, imagine having to spend say fifteen thousand pounds on each one just to keep it on the shelf (remember, that this is not a fixed cost and can vary greatly). For us, it already means a few years turn over, forget any profit that may be available to spend on it!

The other major effect of the cost of course is that it is only a few large companies will survive. All herbal products will be given over to the hands of major, large companies, effectively killing competition dead and creating outright monopolies. Europe, once again succeeds in putting everything into the hands of mega corporations and cutting out the individuals and the small businesses.

There is actually nothing wrong with backing up products with ’quality control’ and production methodology data of course! It is the cost that kills…kills cleverly, leaving the rotting corpses of the individuals for the faceless, giant, corporate vultures

The irony of the legislation is that our herbal products are now made to UK GMP, which is the highest standard possible, it is the MHRA’s own standard. So our products already have officially recognised status as being of the highest possible quality, but because we can not afford the newly imposed paperwork to go with it some of the highest quality herbal products ever made will be taken from the shelves because we could not afford to join the club!

We will also find the incredible situation where a strong and potentially dangerous (in the wrong hands) herb such as Lobelia (that already has been registered/licensed) will remain quite happily on the shelves whilst an unregistered bilberry or artichoke tincture made to UK GMP will be removed from the shelves. Consider this situation for a moment…two perfectly safe foods effectively, removed from sale simply because they also happen to have medicinal properties! Startling, especially when, in terms of safety, cabbage is far more dangerous than bilberry or artichoke…yes, cabbage, it contains elements that kill thyroid cells. Just one example of the abject stupidity of the Directive! How far will this stupidity go? Will we see headlines in the paper such as…man arrested in possession of elderberry to be charged with intent to supply unregistered anit-virals…

When will fruit and vegetable sellers be prosecuted for making perfectly normal claims about the health giving properties of their produce? What about herbs and spices in everyday food products? Sage for example contains the chemical thujone which causes contraction of the womb and could lead to an abortion. Paxo, the makers of that world famous brand of sage and onion stuffing had better watch out. They could get really stuffed by the MHRA for causing a rapid unstuffing of the heavily pregnant thanks to the unregistered herbals in their festive fare.

Bizarrely, the herbs to be registered are those that are sold or marketed by companies as medicines. Just to state the obvious before continuing...medicinal herbs are medicinal, i.e. good for your health or able to adjust elements of your physiology for the better, simply because that's what they do. Herbs are medicinal, simply because they are, not because they are packaged or processed in some specific way. Remember also that the basic way in which a herb is used medicinally is either in its fresh state or as the dried herb made into a tea. It is still the same medicinal herb as the one made into a tincture, tablet or capsule. Oddly though, dried herbs (for culinary purposes for example) are exempt from the need to be registered, even though they are the same medicinal herbs...consider turmeric, ginger, chilli,garlic,coriander, dill, fennel,fenugreek horseradish, thyme, sage, peppermint etc etc...the list is endless. All medicinal regardless of the way they are processed...or cooked. The reason a lot of these herbs are in foods, Indian and Chinese food being perfect examples, is because they are medicinal. The cost of registration is really going to take the price of a good curry beyond the reach of us mere financial mortals! It is obvious then, that this registration fee is merely a tax on a particular sector of the herb industry, not a move to protect public it not? Food with ginger in is just as "dangerous" to public health using this warped logic as a ginger tablet is. Maybe it's just me...

I feel like an idiot having to say these things, but this is exactly where we are. Legislation improving and ensuring the quality of herbal medicines (such as the GMP standard) is to be applauded of course, but this Directive is difficult to classify in any way…it’s not good…it’s not bad….it’s just crazy, like the ideas of lunatics who just make life up as they go along!

There are currently, hundreds of herbal products in what is a vibrant, innovative market, but at the time of writing there are only 61 applications in with the MHRA for product registrations and only 28 have been granted so far. Remember, there is less than 2 years to go before full implementation, and it will take over 2 years to register a product. We could be looking at store shelves being cleared of the majority of herbal products in one swoop. Anything new after this point would have to go into the grindingly slow, expensive registration process and the innovation, competitiveness and vibrancy of the herbal market is also erased in one swoop, leaving what is left in the hands of a few companies that could afford the costly registration process. It is informative to learn that one company already holding a few registrations has never had anything to do with herbal medicine before. It’s simply turned gaining herbal registrations into a money spinning commodity to be sold on to monopoly enterprises.

The cost of registration also implies of course that the price of the remaining products will inevitably increase, further depressing the herbal market. In fact, it looks certain, that the herbal market as we now know it will vanish completely. Maybe that’s the plan anyway.

Why is this registration process required?

What the MHRA is doing is forcing the herbal world into the pharmaceutical world. These worlds do not fit together…herbs and pharmaceutical drugs are entirely different entities. I am a herbalist, not a pharmacist. Drugs are new, purified chemicals, some of which never existed before man made them. Herbs, as we know, have been with us since time began, and are complex mixtures of the plants own chemicals.

Interestingly, registered herbal products are being given new names! In fact the MHRA encourages the use of brand names. Why? Is this safe? Is this legal? Think about it...the herb using public know the names of the herbs they want. Herbs have had names, the same names, for time immemorial. Imagine turning up at your health store for some Valerian only to find it's now called Somnoease or some other stupid pseudo pharmaceutical name. A recipe for absolute disaster and a recipe in which safety has been thrown out the window completely. If you want to be safe, you call something by it's name! How stupid is that? This aspect of the Directive simply demonstrates how far removed from the reality of herbal medicine the Legislators are.

The MHRA claims that the public has to be safeguarded against the herbal medicine we have used, and have the right to use, since time began. Don’t forget either, that some of the herbs we are talking about are herbs such as Dandelion, Hawthorn, Bilberry, Fennel, Sage, Thyme, Oats, Artichoke, Ginger, Bladderwrack, Nettle, Turmeric etc, everyday, familiar food items otherwise. To suggest the public has to be safeguarded against these herbs or indeed others that have what amounts to the longest ever human clinical trials and use as everyday food items is utter nonsense.

Most importantly, there is no public safety issue involved with herbal medicine. Where are the statistics to show how dangerous herbal medicine is? How does it compare to pharmaceutical drug safety? Every now and again the MHRA will send out a warning about a herbal product that is dangerous because it contains the wrong thing or a dangerous herb or substance. More often than not the herb will be Chinese. All main stream European and US companies producing herbal remedies for the British market manufacture to extremely high standards, as I have said, the herbals I use and sell are made to the MHRA’s own GMP standard. If the MHRA really want to do something then they should close down the High Street Chinese herbalists that are appearing everywhere. The products being sold through them are not even labelled in English! In other words, they are even breaking normal trading standards rules…are they not? These people do not represent the normal British/European or US herbal trade. They simply bring products in directly from their own sources in China. On the other hand, British/European or US companies that make products from Chinese herbs make them to the usual high standards expected of the western herbal tradition.

Another major evil of the Directive is that it has the effect of distancing us even further from the natural world. It creates a kind of “us in here, them out there kind of situation”, where the natural world is somehow dangerous and out to get us unless we are protected from it. After millions of years of evolving together , or if you prefer, after millennia of having been given by God the medicines that we need in the natural world around us, the European Parliament and the MHRA comes along and suddenly decides that after all this time we have learned nothing, or if you prefer, that God is an idiot, and we suddenly need protecting from Hawthorn berries and the like. Since we first appeared on this planet the knowledge we have gained in the use of herbs is immense. Incredible civilisations over millennia have given us so much knowledge in the use of herbs that we do not have enough lifetimes to learn it all. Most importantly, we have learned how to use herbs safely, and which herbs are safe. It is that simple really, but we have forgotten this in the technologically advanced Western world because of our dependence on chemical medicine and drugs, and the fact that they are sold so effectively to us!

Here we are living in a time when we in the Western world need to get back to nature but our law makers are distancing us even further from it. The World Health Organisation itself says that, even in this day and age, over 70% of the Earth’s population still use herbal medicine as its only or main form of medicine. Well, surprise, surprise , we would wouldn’t we….this stuff grows on trees….duh!

So there we have it.
Europe is achieving something incredible, and setting one of the most dangerous precedents in history. Not only is our right to remain attached to the natural world for our medicine being severed, but the right to legislate for tradition, culture and history is being claimed. Be warned and be very scared European people…today your oldest tradition is being taken away from you, tomorrow it will be your tongues and your Gods.

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