Jake Paul Fratkin, OMD, L.Ac, from The Herbalist’s Corner Acupuncture Today, July 2016, Vol. 17, Issue 07
Wilson Lau is the vice president of Nuherbs, a Chinese herb importation company based in San Leandro, California. Before joining Nuherbs, he trained as a lawyer specializing in FDA law. Wilson’s parents, Pat Kwan and Henry Lau, a traditional herbal practitioner, started a small Chinese herb store in Oakland which, in 1979, became Nuherbs. This company has become a leading importer and distributor of Chinese herbs and patent medicines in North America. They launched Herbal Times Teapills formulas, originally to share the knowledge of Pat’s mother, Dr. Bing Yin Lee, a famous practitioner, author and teacher of Chinese herbal medicine. The product line grew to include popular classical and modern herbal formulas, and is now respected for it’s production quality.
Wilson Lau does not bring to Nuherbs an expertise as a TCM practitioner, but the experience and training of a FDA lawyer able to navigate the complex rules and regulations that have emerged nationally over the last 15 years. In the process, he has made it his mission to elevate Chinese herbs to higher standards than the industry has previously experienced. When Nuherbs imports an herb from China, it goes through several stages of inspection. Every lot of “nuherbs Lab Tested herbs” are independently tested insuring they are free of pesticides residuals, microbial contamination, and heavy metals. Nuherbs can, and does, provide a Certificate of Analysis for each herb they sell.
Because of the rigidity of quality control, Nuherbs is now the leading provider of Chinese herbs for American manufacturers. Wilson Lau sits on important national committees as an expert on laws pertaining to Chinese herbs, as well as issues concerning purity and quality of imported herbs.
I spoke with Wilson on a variety of topics pertaining to our profession.
JPF: What are some of the new issues that have come up concerning the importing or availability of traditional medicinal herbs in USA?
Wilson Lau: The biggest change is the implementation of FSMA – the Food Safety Modernization Act. This is a recent act of Congress that has been created to insure the safety of food. It also governs all individual herbs, which now need to comply with FSMA rules and regulations. These rules are costly to comply with and time consuming, but basically protect the public in a meaningful way. Before, you only got in trouble if someone got sick. The new rules are in place to prevent people from getting sick. Every herb, whether sold individually, or used in an herbal product, has requirements insuring safety. There are written verifications at every stage. Under the new rules, there are serious criminal penalties for violation, which are investigated by customs and the FDA.
What this means to the end consumer is safer foods at higher costs. Everyone in the supply chain has to perform their food safety analysis – the grower, importer, manufacturer and retailers. Everyone before the practitioner will have to provide paperwork and equipment testing, etc. Not only will it cause price increases on herbs and herbal products, but it will actually reduce the number of products on the market. The cost of FSMA compliance, compared to final sales, may not justify carrying the herb.
JPF: Does this apply to herbal products and formulas well?
Wilson Lau: Regulations apply to all of the individual ingredients. If the total demand for an isolated herb is there, the formulas will have to change, or be discontinued. Dietary supplement cGMP already makes it harder to do smaller batch runs, because of fixed overhead associated with regulations. One bottle or 20,000 bottles – it’s the same amount of work from a regulatory standpoint. So, less popular formulas are not going to be available. Every day, a smaller formula is on the carpet, and unpopular products will disappear or the cost will go up. With our Herbal Times line, when you see a product has been discontinued, it is not necessarily due to the ingredients used, but to the total volume sold.
JPF: Are there any new herbs that have become prohibited to import from China?
Wilson Lau: Nothing new in the last five years. Everyone remembers the aristolochic acid scare back in 2004 – a number of popular herbs were pulled from the shelf, including xi xin (Radix/Rhizoma Asari). And of course ma huang (Radix Ephedrae), due to DEA concerns. As of 2004, no ephedrine alkaloids are allowed in dietary supplements. Also, USDA rules require that if a product contains more than 1% poultry that it must be manufactured in FSIS facility. So products like Wu Ji Bai Feng Wan, which use to offer 33% chicken, now has to revamp its formula in order to enter the USA. We don’t offer ji nei jin (Endothelium Corneum Gigeriae Galli), not because it’s prohibited, but because sales won’t entice a FSIS facility to take the business.
JPF: What is the status of herbs coming out of China?
Wilson Lau: Well, herb prices are certainly going up, because Chinese labor costs are going up. Also, China has to comply with FSMA rules before they can export, and this also raises the costs. And modernization has forced China to increase its own regulations. They reconfigured their own GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) in 2004, which are very stringent and regimented. They are more detailed and prescriptive compared to Australia or USA GMP, and this applies for their own domestic use as well as export.
JPF: What is the ratio of wild-crafted versus cultivated Chinese herbs coming in from China? When I was there in the late 80s, probably 60% were wild-crafted.
Wilson Lau: I don’t know the exact percentage now, but certainly, more is cultivated and less is wild-crafted. But we at Nuherbs are committed to providing more wild-crafted or organically cultivated herbs. And wild-crafted are allowed be certified as organic. We go out of our way to find these, and that’s what we offer. Our licorice is wild crafted, for example, and is twice as expensive as cultivated licorice. Our preference is wild-crafted, and our goal is to sell the highest quality herbs.
We have a team of Chinese herbal buyers working for us in five different regions of China. These are highly trained herbalists, working exclusively for us, buying both wild-crafted and cultivated. They buy top grades, based on traditional measures as well as lab testing. We reject sulfured herbs in the main, but will accept sulfur processing for certain herbs that require it. For dang gui (Radix Angelicae Sinensis), sulfur is needed for slicing, and is necessary to know what part of the plant you are getting. The body, tail, and head all have different properties and uses. For shan yao (Rhizoma Dioscoreae), we offer both processed with sulfured or unsulfured. In medicinal soup, the sulfured processed version is preferred in order to hold its texture, and many of our customers prefer that. (Editor: Many Chinese herbs are traditionally prepared with powdered sulfur to aid in cutting, or preservation. Don’t confuse “sulfured” with sulfites. Powder sulfur on herbs does not carry the health consequences of foods that contain sulfites.)
JPF: What is the situation regarding pesticide use China?
Wilson Lau: I know this is getting a fair amount of controversial press, here in the USA. Nuherbs does testing on all our nuherbs Lab Tested Herbs,or and the ones that we use in our Herbal Times product line. We avoid all pesticide residues. If the plant has them, we don’t buy them, or sell them. Unannounced visual audits are done in the field by our buyers, to see if the fields are being sprayed or not. All of the ingredient herbs are tested using 3rd party testing.
It costs $400 to do one pesticide screen on an herb. To confirm that a herb is pharmacopeia grade, many tests are required, and we end up spending at a minimum $1300 per herb, every time it comes in. We test for pesticides residuals, bacteria, and heavy metals. We also test to insure the level of active ingredients, so that we meet minimum standards that have been established. Most importers do not do this – it’s too costly and time consuming.
JPF: What about importation of endangered animal parts?
Wilson Lau: World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has listed all prohibited animals that have been used in Chinese medicine, and these are prohibited for import by US law. Of course we comply. We also work with, and contribute money to, FairWild, an organization that guarantees sustainable use of medicinal plants.
JPF: Where do you see our TCM profession going, in the USA?
Wilson Lau: It’s going to grow, most definitely. As Americans live longer, people will seek alternatives to the conventional “sick” approach for the alternative “healthy” approach. Because TCM can really deliver effective healing, at a much cheaper cost than the current medical model, the profession can only grow.
JPF: Thank you Wilson.