Michael McGuffin speaks herbs to power

American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) president Michael McGuffin got his start in the herbal business selling vegetables and bulk herbs on the beach. From there he would go on to represent the industry in the highest corridors of power, serving as president since 1999. AHPA recently honored McGuffin for 20 years of service.

FI: How did you get interested in herbs in the first place?

Michael McGuffinMM: Bill Cosby had a book called I Started Out as a Child and that was me. I lived at the edge of suburbia in Baltimore and my favorite thing to do was roam in the woods. I started making sassafras tea at about 10 or 12 years old and I haven't stopped. Fairly early on I came across Euell Gibbons and his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. That sure sounded like fun. On the herbal side one of the early books I came across was Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss.

I went to college at Johns Hopkins long enough to figure out that was not where I needed to be at that age.

FI: You started in the food business in Venice, California. Tell us about the early days.

MM: We called our store Venice Fruit Tramps. There were three of us — I was the buyer. So I was the fool who got up at 3 every morning and went to downtown LA to the produce market.

We had such a small store . . . I remember when a big load of plums would come in and they'd pull two crates out of the cab of the truck that were tree ripe — too ripe for regular stores. And they were cheap! Here we were — getting the best quality at the best price.

Our clientele included a lot of retired immigrants. We were a bunch of hippies and they'd harass us about opening on time and giving the right change. We sold bulk herbs, 20 or 30 different types like peppermint, dandelion and goldenseal. We were clear that we were making these available to people who knew something about them.

FI: How did you go from herbal purveyor to producer?

MM: In the late '70s, I had moved to a health-food store in Santa Monica and a woman named Janet Zand was managing the herbal department. She was already putting formulas together and we decided to commercialise those. We invested our entire fortune of $2,200 in the late '70s. I don't think you could do that today — start an herbal business with so little money.

FI: Now that you are head of the AHPA you have a broad view of the industry. How has it changed?

MM: We're a very diverse industry at this point. Our members and our trade include people that are still literally living on the farm. And it includes people who have never seen the farm. I think you could say that 30 years ago the impetus to get into this was more cultural than business.

FI: What are some of the challenges the industry faces?

MM: The short term issue is compliance with the new GMPs. The industry's got a lot of learning to do in this area. That is a serious challenge. Then there is a continuing challenge that is a little more outside of our control. That is the fact that we are a vector for the distribution of illegal products. There are companies that have decided that they can bring illegal products to market masquerading as dietary supplements. One category is steroids, another is weight loss and another is erectile-dysfunction products. We get a reputation in the media about it. The problem with criminals is that they commit crimes.

Another challenge is a broader issue to better control our message … to identify that our products are largely heath promoting and properly regulated for what they are.

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