We all want the quality of items we purchase to be the best possible, and this is particularly so when it is something that we are going to take ourselves or give to our pets. But how can you be sure of the quality of the herbal ingredients? Many manufacturers will tell you that their ingredients are "of the highest quality", but how can you be sure if this is true or if it's just advertising jargon?
Quality is important because it is the quality of the ingredients that make herbal products effective. If the ingredients have been kept in poor conditions, are old and musty or have been exposed to the damp then the beneficial properties will have deteriorated. The product they are incorporated into will be less effective. We sometimes hear people say that they have tried using herbal products with only limited success; in fact this may often be due to the quality of the products being in doubt. When high quality herbs are used the result they were looking for is obtained.
With herbal ingredients there are many different qualities available depending on the origin of the plant, the way it has been dried and the conditions in which it has kept before being incorporated into a product. Most importantly, is that the plant used is actually the correct species and that it has not been adulterated with some other inferior herb. Some herbs, such as Valerian, Rhubarb, Senna and Buckthorn have standards, which are laid down in the British Pharmacopoeia, but the majority do not.
To overcome this problem and provide a standard specification for all herbs, the British Herbal Medicine Association produced in 1971 the first edition of it's own Pharmacopoeia, the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP). The current 1996 edition is now used by the medical and scientific professions as a standard work for checking herb quality and specifications. The BHP gives definitions and standards of purity for all herbs as well as macroscopical and microscopical descriptions. It lays down the way in which the herb should be identified using laboratory techniques such as thin layer chromatology and also the storage and preparation requirements to ensure the continued presence of the efficacious ingredients throughout the shelf life of the product in which it is included.
Licensed herbal medicines have to conform to these specifications and identification tests. You can be sure that any licensed herbal medicine, which is identified by a Vm number on the label, will contain ingredients that meet either the European, British or British Herbal Pharmacopoeia standards, and therefore be effective.
Unlicensed herbal products, which includes some vitamins, dried, powdered and liquid mixes, do not need to conform to BHP requirements. Tests on some of these products have shown that some suppliers adulterate the herbs with up to 70% of an inferior product and in some liquids the amount of the herb shown on the label as being included in the product has been too small to identify. Because of the lack of regulations these products can, and sometimes are, produced in unhygienic conditions.
What can we all as consumers do to make sure that we are getting good quality herbal products that will work? Firstly, always use a Licensed medicine if possible, as this means you can be sure the quality and purity meets standards set by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which is the government's medicines licensing authority. However, when it is necessary to use an unlicensed herbal product, always ask if the ingredients used conform to the standards laid down in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. Try to establish whether they are manufactured according to accepted standard practices in a satisfactory environment.
The British Herbal Medicine Association's veterinary committee, require all their members who manufacture herbal medicines and supplements to conform to BHP standards for their herbal Ingredients and to employ proper quality control procedures for their products, whether licensed or unlicensed. Unfortunately, there will always be manufactures who use untested, inferior ingredients, which they can then retail at lower prices. However, these produce inferior quality products, which are often ineffective. It is important therefore that to obtain the best results, consumers are vigilant in insisting on only using herbal products for themselves or their animals that have been made by manufacturers using quality tested herbal ingredients. In this way, we can all help to ensure that the quality and therefore the effectiveness of this form of treatment is maintained, and will continue to be of enormous benefit to all our animals.