Fakes and leftovers taint the medicinal herb market

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2012, 12:00am


After two years of taking the same combination of herbs to treat his insomnia, 67-year-old Gu Fei found that they suddenly failed to help him sleep. The change, he realised, came after he tried to save money by buying the herbs from a wholesale market in Chengdu.

'The flavour was not right,' Gu told the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly. One of the herbs was also half its usual size, and when he soaked it in water for a few minutes, it turned out to be full of sand.

After Gu spent months talking to herb dealers and other experts, the consensus was that the herbs he thought he bought were just the remains of previously processed herbs that should have been thrown away rather than resold. Luo Shiwen , a retired official with the State Food and Drug Administration, said the practice was a growing problem.

'It is more common to see substandard herbs passed off as top-notch, but now recycling the waste and passing it off as genuine can be found almost everywhere in the industry,' Luo said.

'The quality of herbs has never been as bad as it is now.'

After passing himself off as a herbal shop owner, Gu found that sellers in wholesale markets displayed mainly samples, and the larger deals involving retailers were done outside the market.

Gu also found that wholesale dealers were replacing expensive herbs with similar-looking plants, and some sellers even added metallic powder to boost the weight.

Determining that the herbs were not contaminated would require a metal detector, he said.

Other tricks he uncovered included the mislabelling of ginseng as being grown in the wild, and costly dried herbs being replaced with plants that were simply soaked in the herbs' water to give them the proper flavour.

Gu also found that oil said to be obtained from Chinese forest frogs might have been from other frogs, or obtained from starch. He filmed his transactions at the Chengdu wholesale market and tried to report the incidents to the authorities in March. But he has yet to get a response.

A market insider told the Southern Weekly: 'It's safe to say that at least 20 per cent of herbs sold at wholesale markets are fake.'

Dr Dong Xieliang, president of the Xian Xietong Hospital in Shaanxi , told the South China Morning Post: 'It's rare to see a totally fake herb. More often you see poorer quality herbs passed off as the real deal ... because the price difference is huge. And when you're dealing with expensive rare herbs, the odds of buying fakes are even greater.

'It's common to see herbs mixed with sand or even steel shavings.'

However, some drug firms buy herbs directly from herb farmers to cut costs and ensure the quality, Dong says. But most herbal shops get their goods from wholesale markets.

The quality of herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine has become so bad that it has reduced their health benefits, Dong warns.

'You go to see a good doctor and expect to be cured, but a good doctor can't treat you without good medicine,' Dong said, adding that the consequence of taking substandard herbs was that while 'you won't die, you won't be cured either'.

Dong also blames former State Food and Drug Administration chief Zheng Xiaoyu, who was executed in July 2007 for taking bribes. 'Many drugs were approved without even a clinical trial,' Dong said.

'And some firms secured so many approvals that they could switch to another drug if one failed to work. The drug market is a mess.'

As for Gu Fei, he now carefully examines herbs at the market before buying them to ensure that they will help him sleep. 'Many people say traditional Chinese medicine doesn't work,' he said, 'but in fact the problem lies in the herbs.'