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'American' herbal organizations adopt increasingly global perspective

By Hank Schultz , 10-Feb-2014
Last updated on 13-Feb-2014 at 15:50 GMT

The US dietary supplement market, nourished by the streamlined regulatory structure put into place by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, is the most vibrant in the world.  But that hasn’t stopped the three leading organizations devoted to promoting herbal products on this continent from adopting an increasingly international focus.

The three groups in question—The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), the American Botanical Council (ABC) and the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP)—have all had connections to the global marketplace as part of their organizational DNA, officials with the groups have said. 

Former Mexican president to address AHPA

This point was driven home with the news that Vicente Fox, who was president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, will address AHPA members at a breakfast on May 6 in connection with the group’s meetings at the Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA.  (The talk is open to nonmembers, too; click here to register. Space is limited.) Fox, who had a history as a successful food industry executive before entering politics, has stressed the importance of the Hispanic market the US. In past speeches he has offered his evaluation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and how it could help companies based on the continent compete more effectively globally. And he has a message of the importance of the synergy between companies and their local communities, and stresses the need for a Chief Culture Officer.  Such an executive would address the issue of how well a company is nurturing its local community.

“He has a message of doing well while doing good,” Michael McGuffin, president of AHPA, told NutraIngredients-USA.

McGuffin said AHPA first connected with Fox over the issue of cannabis; where it stood in the marketplace and its legalization.  Fox has long advocated for this position, saying the pull of the black market for marijuana and other drugs in the US is the key supporting factor in the ongoing drug violence in Mexico.  AHPA has had a working group on cannabis for a number of years to look at regulatory issues, market considerations and ingredient standards for medical marijuana.  But McGuffin said he thought the connection with Fox could be of benefit to the wider AHPA membership.

“In later conversations I suggested he bring his broader message to us. He has this unique history.  He’s not a guy who came up as a politician. He came up as a businessman.  And in his political role he dealt with businesses. He sees businesses not as stand alone organizations but as functions of communities.  And I think that’s something that resonates a lot in our trade,” he said.

Connection to IADSA

But this latest foray into things international is nothing new for AHPA, McGuffin said.  “I like to say that all the words in our name—American, herbal, and products—are only partly true. We are not exclusive herbal; we are not interested in only in products, but also supply; and we are not limited to representing companies only within the United States,” he said.

AHPA has continued to broaden its scope with its participation in the International Association of Dietary Supplement Associations (IADSA).  One of the focuses of this organization is to harmonize regulations across the globe as much as possible, and to influence the development of new regulations in emerging markets, especially in Southeast Asia, McGuffin said.

“We believe that IADSA is the most influential international organization of its sort especially in the parts of the world where regulations are still being written. Our involvement is to make sure that herbs are included in that development. We are not trying to export DSHEA, but where there are alternatives, we are saying, why not choose the least restrictive one?” McGuffin said.

ABC:  Board reflects international focus

In the case of the American Botanical Council, the group recently announced the addition of 10 new members to its board , each from a different country spread across five continents. This development “highlights the increasingly international and diverse nature of the ABC Advisory Board,” the group said in a statement. The new members bring expertise in study of medicinal plants, including ethnobotany, pharmacognosy, phytotherapy, pharmacy, organic chemistry and biochemistry, pharmacovigilance, and more.

The new international members join others already on ABC’s board, said founder and executive director Mark Blumenthal.

“It’s part of a growth pattern that we have already been experiencing over the years and it is part of an increase in scope toward a global perspective.  Our activities have always had a global perspective to them,” he said.

“If you look at some of the big issues, they are global nature.  One is research into medicinal plants is an international phenomenon.  We have been reporting on that since ABC began.  HerbalGram (ABC’s quarterly publication) was one of the first publications to report on the early research coming out of Germany.

Another area is the supply chain.  Most of the supply (for products in North America) is coming from global sources. Since we become increasingly involved with issues of quality through our adulterants program, it makes sense that we take this perspective,” he said.

“And the third area is market trends and regulation. Regulation is a local issue but it has international implications,” Blumenthal said.

AHP: International from the start

The American Herbal Pharmacopoeia has always been an internationally-focused organization despite its name, said founder Roy Upton.  AHP’s goal was to bring the best of medicinal plant research to serve the herbal products business in North America through its extensive and growing series of monographs. And the best research has always been conducted overseas, Upton said, starting with studies done in Germany after World War II.

Germany has long been a leader in the herbal medicine research game and got a leg up in a most unfortunate way, Upton said.  Most of the facilities used to manufacture drugs were destroyed during the war, and as part of war reparations, German pharmaceutical companies (most of whom were deeply compromised in their associations with the Nazis) lost the rights to their domestic and international patents.

“This forced them to return to herbal medicines in that time of crisis,” Upton said. “This was primarily true in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.  Because of that, they are 60 years ahead of us in medicinal plant research. We have a handful of botanicals that were researched through NCCAM (the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine).”

While European researchers were investigation and in some cases rediscovering the medicinal properties of herbs, research ramped up in India on Ayurvedic herbs and more recently in China on TCM preparations.  But in North America, the focus was almost exclusively on the pharmaceutical approach, toward isolating individual molecules and tightly focused modes of action, Upton said.

“After Pasteur and his identification of microbes as being potentially pathogenic agents for disease the search was on to destroy disease,” he said.

“In contrast there was always in health care philosophy that if you stay strong and healthy you stay resistant to many of those diseases. If you maintain the health of the host, the pathogen won’t be able to get a foothold.  But Western medicine always took the kill the disease approach,” Upton said. 

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