Congress COOLs on imported ginseng

In a bid to protect American ginseng growers against what are perceived to be inferior imports a bill has been put before Capitol Hill that will mandate country-of-origin labeling (COOL) if passed.

The bill only applies to ginseng sold in its whole form and comes as a reaction to what Senator Russ Feingold — one of four legislators who sponsored the bill — said was a problem of Asian and Canadian ginseng being labeled as 'Wisconsin-grown.' Wisconsin is responsible for about 95 per cent of American ginseng and 10 per cent of the global crop.

"We must protect the superior quality of ginseng Wisconsin farmers produce from counterfeit labels and ginseng smugglers," Feingold said. "Consumers looking for a high-quality ginseng product — such as Wisconsin-grown ginseng — should be able to have confidence that they are getting the real thing and not a knock-off."

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) backed the Bill with its president Michael McGuffin stating: "This bill will ensure buyers of whole ginseng root are given truthful information as to its source, without creating unnecessary labeling requirements for other herbal ingredients or for finished herbal products."

Canadian ginseng growers said they were being unfairly victimised by the bill. "This mislabeling is more of an issue in the US with Chinese-grown ginseng," Associated Ginseng Growers of British Columbia vice-president Menno Schellenberg said. "It just seems they have thrown Canada in there for good measure, because we're not the primary problem."

Butch Weege, executive director of the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin agreed Canadian ginseng was not the problem, rather US wholesalers and retailers that mislabel products and "do whatever they can to make a buck."

Canadian ginseng is generally bigger, sweeter and has a drier skin.

Wisconsin grows about 270,000kg per year compared with 360,000 in British Columbia. Ontario produces 1.3 million kg per year. Because of its quality, Wisconsin-grown ginseng sells at a premium over other varieties — up to $60 per kg — although across-the-board prices have been dropping as the market has been flooded with North American species grown in China.

The Ginseng Board of Wisconsin has brought legal action against some Chinese companies for counterfeiting, a move supported by the Chinese government.

If the bill is passed retailers will be fined $1000 if found with mislabeled ginseng on their shelves, and $250 for every day such products remain on sale.

COOL has gained a lot of attention of late in the wake of concerns over the quality of foods, supplements and raw materials imports. A COOL bill was passed in 2002 but its implementation is not due until October 2008, despite polls indicating more than 90 per cent of Americans favour COOL.

In an unrelated motion, Codex, the World Health Organization's food regulations and standards body, recently recommended establishing GMP standards for the most popular variety of Asian ginseng.

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