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Most Ayurvedic Supplements Still Safe for Retail, Say Industry Leaders

The fallout from a recent journal article detailing the discovery of heavy metals in certain Ayurvedic herbal products should be limited, and calls by the authors for DSHEA reform are unfounded, according to leaders in the herbal community.

The Dec. 25 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association featured an article concluding that one out of five Ayurvedic herbal medicine products produced in South Asia and marketed in Boston-area South Asian ethnic stores contains "potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic." The authors deduced that users of Ayurvedic treatments may be at risk for toxicity, and called for mandatory testing of Ayurvedic products for heavy metals.

"The authors' call for reform of federal law is apparently being made without the knowledge that [the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act] already has provisions for heightened [good manufacturing practices] for dietary supplements. [The Food and Drug Administration] is expected to publish final rules for GMPs imminently, possibly before the end of this year," said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council. "In addition, the importation and/or sale of herbal products containing heavy metals is illegal under existing FDA laws," he said.

Nevertheless, the JAMA article has received publicity in such mainstream media outlets as the Los Angeles Times and CNN's show Anderson Cooper 360?. But according to Blumenthal, the article brings undue attention to a very small number of products, which are not representative of the whole herbal medicine market. In an interview with CNN, Blumenthal sought to dispel the negative publicity, saying, "Most herbal products in the marketplace are safe." He further noted that the herbs in question were imported from India for Indian stores—not for mainstream natural foods stores. And, though Blumenthal said it was lamentable that any product should contain heavy metals, he pointed out that the products analyzed in the article were only a small section of the market that had "basically circumvented or bypassed the traditional dietary supplement system here."

Steven Dentali, vice president, scientific and technical affairs, of the American Herbal Products Association, said retailers should have nothing to worry about unless they run ethnic Indian stores or carry completely traditional Ayurvedic remedies. "These products are from India, and are already illegal products," said Dentali. Though that may seem clear enough, consumers are still concerned.

P.K. Dave, president of Ayurvedic supplement producer Nature's Formulary, said, "We've received phone calls asking if our products are safe." Despite the fact that Nature's Formulary products are made in the United States, in compliance with the National Nutritional Food Association's good manufacturing practices, the JAMA article seems to have created an unfounded negative image of Ayurvedic products in the eyes of consumers. "People are thinking it's all Ayurvedic products (that contain heavy metals)," said Dave. He encouraged retailers to assure their customers that the risky products were only a tiny percentage of the Ayurvedic market, and were not designed to be sold in the Unites States.

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