Chinese herbal medicine quality and safety

By: Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

Chinese herbal medicine quality and safety has recently come into the spotlight following a study circulating in the mainstream media. As a practitioner of Tian lineage herbal medicine, quality of herbs is an important issue for me.

This study identified 26 TCM products containing unlisted ingredients, some of which may have a negative effect on health. It was also found that there was trace evidence of some protected species of animals under CITES, which is against the code of ethics for practitioners registered with associations such as AACMA.

Whilst the list of actual products tested has unfortunately not been released, they are known to be pre formulated items which are sold over the counter. Some of these products have been imported and sold without the approval of the TGA, which certifies quality herbal medical products for sale. Herbal formulations that have been approved by the TGA have an AUSTL number on the label. There were also some products in this study that did have TGA approval, which raises concerns about the integrity of the approval system.

The manner in which this study is being reported upon reflects poorly on the field of Chinese medicine. However being focused on a small selection of products, this is by no means representative of Chinese herbal medicine quality and safety throughout the industry.

Reputable suppliers

Chinese herbalists are trained to identify raw herbs by sight, to ensure that the correct ingredients in formulas are being dispensed. Wholesale distributers in Australia, such as Winner trading, offer eurofin certified raw herbs. Eurofins is a German laboratory that test products for pesticides and heavy metals, providing assurances that these products are safe. These are the herbs used by Empirical Health to produce herbal formulas in pill form as used at Dantian Health.

Granulated herbs, when bought from reputable companies, contain the highest quality of herbs. The granule companies often have first dibs at the herbs in the wholesale market, or have direct relationship with herb farms, and perform extensive testing to ensure correct ingredients and the absence of pesticides and other unwanted nasties.

At Dantian Health Chinese Herbal Medicine clinic in Melbourne, KPC and KODA are the main brand of herbal granules used. This is ensure a quality product when you are taking chinese herbal granules that I prescribe. They provide quality assurance that each batch of herbs has been fully tested to ensure the correct species of herbs and absence of adulterants. This statement comes directly from KPC regarding their quality assurance:

“High-precision laboratory tests check multiple samples from each batch to measure the potency and to establish the safety of the product. These tests include the following:

  • Microbiological assays to screen for E. coli, salmonella and various other possible bio-contaminants such as molds or yeasts
  • GC-MS-MS (Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry) to ensure safety by testing for the presence of over 200 harmful substances such as pesticides, herbicides and fungicides
  • UPLC-MS-MS (Ultra performance Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry) to measure key active ingredients, thereby indicating the general efficacy of the herb or herb formula
  • ICP-MS (Inductively Coupled Plasma – Mass Spectrometry) to test heavy metals up to a range of parts per billion (ppb). ICP-MS is by far the most precise and sensitive technology available today to test for heavy metals.

KP not only test finished products, but also raw material and semi-finished products.

Each batch of herb is produced with a Certificate of Analysis (COA). The COA documents the excellent quality of our herbal extracts. Only batches that fulfill the KP’s ‘Golden Standard’ are packaged and distributed. The Golden Standard is a collection of the strictest criteria of the safety standards from the U.S., Singapore, the E.U. and Japan. The high standard ensures KP’s herbal products may be consumed safely across the world, making them truly world-class.”

Contaminants worldwide

Chinese herbal medicine quality and safety in regards to the presence of pesticides and heavy metals, is an issue that concerns many practitioners worldwide. Eric Brand, one of the fields authorities on Chinese herbs, has written a few articles discussing this issue in further depth such as this one here. The thresholds for which contaminants are of concern are set at a lower level for herbal products than for food in Australia. This means that for your certified and tested herbal products, there is less pesticides and heavy metals than in your food from the supermarket.

In Australia, AACMA is the leading organisation representing acupuncturists and Chinese herbalists. They have sent a press release to the media defining the position by the industry regarding this issue. Unfortunately the media on the whole is not reporting on this side of the debate, instead focusing on sensationalised headlines. The one exception is ABS news radio who conducted an interview in 2015 (no longer online) with the then CEO of AACMA, Charles Hardy.

This problem is one that affects not only Chinese herbal medicine, but indeed all items we may purchase. Like all products that one may find for sale, no matter what the field, there are items of high quality and those of more dubious quality. Sometimes ingredients are substituted or not listed, do we know the source and veracity of everything listed in our food products we buy at the supermarket? Sometimes they are of poorer quality, have you ever bought an inferior quality electronic product that failed to perform as expected? Sometimes the provider of goods and / or services may operate under less than ethical standards, ever had a dodgy car mechanic? This means that as consumers we must remain informed and diligent in our purchases.

Registered Chinese herbalists can ensure Chinese herbal medicine quality and safety

The products tested in this study are available over the counter and are often self prescribed. This ultimately means that the quality and integrity of ingredients and production processes cannot be guaranteed, as is the case with products from reputable suppliers as used by competent Chinese herbalists. This highlights the need to consult qualified Chinese herbal practitioners for your formulas to ensure not only quality of products, but also appropriateness of the formula for your health condition.

When using Chinese herbal medicine, especially adaptogen Chinese herbs, it’s important to also consider the potential side effects and interactions with other medications. The power of adaptogen herbs in regulating stress levels can be beneficial, but consulting with a qualified herbalist or healthcare professional is essential for safe usage.

Your health is the most valuable thing you can possess. To ensure that you are receiving the highest quality of herbal medicine (that is also the most appropriate for you as an individual) it is best to consult a well trained and registered Chinese herbalist for these herbs. Registered practitioners operate within strict regulatory guidelines regarding the dispensing of herbal medicine and are required to undergo ongoing professional development training to ensure that their knowledge is not only up to date, but also constantly improving to provide the best service to their patients.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding your Chinese herbs, then you are encouraged to have an open conversation with your Chinese herbalist. Being an informed consumer ensures that your health, and that of your family, is best taken care of.

What else would you like to know?

Thanks for reading this far. Have I missed your question? Was something unclear? Let me know in the comments below, I read and respond to everyone!

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Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician. Educator.

Jason is the owner and principal practitioner at Dantian Health, providing consultations for Classical Chinese Herbal Medicine and Japanese Acupuncture in Melbourne, Australia.

He is a qualified acupuncture physician, Classical Chinese herbal medicine clinician, shiatsu practitioner and tuina therapist, Oriental therapies educator and director at the Australian Shiatsu College.

Jason's qualifications include:

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