A new European law governing the sale of herbal medicines in the UK has forced a Holme Valley family to re-locate to the other side of the world in order to protect their business. Hilarie Stelfox reports
A HOLME VALLEY family that once lived and worked together is now separated by thousands of miles because of an EU directive, which threatened to destroy their livelihood.
Lesley Robinson, founder of the Little Herbal International company, says new legislation that comes into force next month, will make their business illegal in the UK.
And so, back in January, her daughter Jo Danilo, son-in-law Jan, and grandsons Felix, eight, and Hector, five, emigrated to New Zealand in order to establish a new base for the family’s African herbal remedy company.
Lesley and her husband Glyn, who is a precision engineer, have stayed behind at the former extended-family home – Cloudberry Farm in Dick Edge Lane – to sell the property and find homes for the many animals they keep on their smallholding.
The cause of all their problems is the EU’s Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive, which says that all manufactured herbal remedies must be registered with the Medicines and Health Care Regulatory Association.
“But, of course, this process is very expensive,” says Lesley, “and can take up to two years.
“We found that it would cost around £350,000 to register our five products, which is a phenomenal amount for a small business like ours.”
The EU move is designed to regulate the sale of herbal medicines in the UK in order to protect the public against unsubstantiated claims and dangerous products. At the moment sales of unlicensed products are allowed.
However, Lesley, who recently qualified as a clinical herbalist, says the EU directive will have the net effect of removing the vast majority of herbal products from sale, at the same time dramatically restricting consumer choice. “We’re talking about herbs that have been used for hundreds if not thousands of years. Herbal medicines have had the longest trials in human history,” she says.
Because manufacturers of herbal products also have to prove safe usage of their formulations, in Europe, for at least 15 years, Lesley says the directive unfairly penalises herbal remedies from outside the EU, including Chinese herbal medicine. Her own products are made from traditional African remedies, used for generations in the continent but virtually unknown here until relatively recently.
Lesley’s business, founded 12 years ago following a visit to Zimbabwe, has made the headlines on a number of occasions, not least because she was inspired to start selling the remedies after meeting a witch doctor and experiencing traditional African medicine for herself.
National newspapers and magazines, as well as the Examiner, have featured her successes in treating adults and children with serious skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
Little Herbal products, says Lesley, are all manufactured in South Africa under the guidance of a qualified pharmacist.
“I have a background in the pharmaceutical industry,” she explained, “so I recognise the need for herbal medicines to be safe and used at a safe dosage.
“We had our products tested at the poisons laboratory at St James’ in Leeds and commissioned a report on the African potato tuber (a main constituent) from the herbal sciences department at Middlesex University.
“We know our products help people but the only way we can keep selling them is to move half way round the world.”
For the last five years, Little Herbal has distributed its products from the Channel Islands, in anticipation of the EU directive, but heard in October 2009 that the Guernsey government planned to follow the directive.
The Alliance for Natural Health, a body that campaigns on behalf of herbal practiti-oners, is fighting the European directive. As a result of the outcry the British Government has agreed to allow practitioners involved in herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture to be statutorily registered with the Health Professions Council. Those on the register will be able to prescribe manufactured herbal products.
While this move seems like a good compromise, it will not be implemented for more than a year. “By which time,” says Lesley, “a lot of remedies will have disappeared from the shelves.”
“Who can afford to put their business on hold for a year or more.”
The Alliance has also criticised the Government’s stance and says practitioners are confused by seemingly contradictory announcements on statutory regulation and what will be allowed. It has also been pointed out that regulation will increase the cost of remedies to patients, who will have to pay consultation charges in order to access the sort of medicines they could previously buy over the counter or by mail order.
In the meantime, Lesley’s daughter and son-in-law have settled into a new home on New Zealand’s North Island. Her other daughter lives on the South Island with her partner, a sheep farmer, which was one of the reasons for the family choosing New Zealand.
“But we’d never have moved from the Holme Valley if it wasn’t for the EU directive,” said Lesley, “because we love our farm and we love being in England, but we don’t like being told what to do by Europe.”
THE new directive will have only a minimal effect on herbalists who stock their own pharmacies of loose, raw herbs.
Stacey Ash, who has been practising Chinese herbal medicine in Holmfirth for 10 years, says she will be able to continue making up prescriptions for patients and dispensing them from her consulting room.
“However, practitioners who don’t feel they have enough custom to warrant having their own herbal pharmacy will be affected,” said Stacey, who belongs to the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine.
“At the moment they can see a patient and fax a prescription to a larger pharmacy, usually the importers, and have that prescription sent directly to the patient.
“The new directive means that the herbal prescription will have to be sent back to the practitioner, who will then send it on or dispense it to the patient. This will be most inconvenient and time consuming and I can’t actually understand the reasoning behind it. Obviously it will also have cost implications.”
Stacey says she welcomes the setting up of a herbal practitioners register and regulation for the profession.
“It will be a good thing because it will give us a forum and a voice so that we will be properly listened to,” she explained. “As a profession we want to regulate ourselves but we want to do it in a way that’s sensible. It’s also good that a person has to go to a practitioner to get medicines.”
Her view is shared by medical herbalist Sue Salmon from Kirkburton. “The register means that we can continue practising and that people will still be able get herbs without going onto the internet and buying unlicensed herbs of unknown quality.”