Many of the non-culinary herbs now being added to foods have traditionally been found in therapeutic products, particularly complementary medicines. However, the majority have not undergone a safety assessment to determine their suitability for use in foods. There are significant differences between the regulation of therapeutic products and the regulation of foods which impact on safety. Firstly, non-culinary herbs used in foods are not controlled by the quality control standards required for therapeutic products. Secondly, food use of non-culinary herbs may result in exposure of a broader segment of the population, and thus raise additional safety concerns. Thirdly, foods, unlike therapeutic products, are not accompanied by advice on safe use of the product (such as dosage and potential side effects), nor are there a reporting mechanisms for adverse effects resulting from food use.
Thus, while the risks associated with the use of a non-culinary herb in a therapeutic product are reasonably well managed, this may not be the case when the same non-culinary herb is used in foods. No direct comparison can be inferred between the safety of non-culinary herbs in a therapeutic product and the safety of the same non-culinary herbs presented in a food form. This is contrary to the general expectation of consumers that food and its ingredients are safe when used in reasonable quantities and at a reasonable frequency.
Non-culinary herbs, particularly those that have a history of use in therapeutic products, are presumably being added to food to elicit a physiological or pharmacological effect, raising questions about the appropriateness of using food as the vehicle to deliver such substances. Most non-culinary herbs currently being added to food do not have regulatory approval, nor has the safety been assessed for food use. The current regulations address the health risk posed by certain high-risk plants and fungi by prohibiting or restricting their addition to food, but this does not apply generally to non-culinary herbs.
FSANZ is currently considering whether there is a need to amend the Food Standards Code, to ensure that if non-culinary herbs are used in food, they will not introduce any additional public health and safety concerns. This issue is being considered as proposal P260 and public comment is being sought on the initial assessment document, which can be accessed from the FSANZ web site at www.foodstandards.gov.au or www.foodstandards.govt.nz .