Herb Safety: Buying Herbs
Frequently in my posts I suggest herbs or herbal formulas. Sometimes, these herbs might not be readily available and may need to be ordered. I want to talk about purchasing herbs safely in light of a recent tragedy in which an infant died of an infection caused by contaminated goldenseal powder being applied to their umbilical cord stump.
To be clear, I’m not here to judge or criticize, and I encourage compassion for the family and caregivers. Rather, I’m here to talk about safely purchasing herbs.
So, what happened?
FDA testing revealed that the goldenseal powder applied to infant’s umbilical cord was contaminated with Enterobacter cloacae, Cronobacter sakazakii, Cronobacter dublinensis. Cronobacter sakazakii is a known cause of infant meningitis. See the FDA recall notice here.
The goldenseal powder was purchased from a third-party seller who had purchased it in bulk from a larger, reputable herb supplier; repackaged it for retail sale and sold it on Amazon over a period of five years. The origin of the Cronobacter in this case is not known. Historically it has been found in soil samples, powdered milk substitutes – including infant formulas, processed cheeses, meats, herbs and in some spices, Storage could be an important factor, since Cronobacter can develop over time in stored material.
There are several ways in which herbs (and other products) can become contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms. They can be in the soil or elsewhere in the environment. Microbial contamination can also result from improper processing, handling, and storage.
How can you know if the herbs you purchase are safe?
Nothing is a 100% guarantee: The same is true of the food we purchase, and sometimes bad things happen despite honest and best efforts. And honestly, these kinds of incidents are rare. I think the best that one can do is make sure that the business/es that one purchases from are doing their due diligence.
Here are some factors to evaluate:
Make sure that the source you buy from has robust quality assurance procedures (more on that below). Avoid purchasing herbs or supplements from third party sellers on large distribution platforms as there is no way to know if they are handled and stored appropriately or even if they were adulterated.
Larger companies often have testing programs in place that test for moisture (an important factor in microbial growth), organic and inorganic foreign material; and microbial, heavy metal, mold, and pesticide contamination. Information about testing and other quality assurance procedures should be available on a company’s website or by request. Testing programs however, are not foolproof. They are expensive and often are not within reach for small, local businesses.
If testing isn’t available, it does not necessarily mean that product quality is inferior, as long as appropriate guidelines are consistently followed.
Botanical growers, wild crafters, wholesalers, manufacturers, retailers, formulators and dispensaries should follow current best practices. The American Herbal Products Association provides detailed guidance and assessment tools related to best practices and compliance with FDA regulations, these include:
Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP)
For growers, collectors, and processors of botanical materials. Includes extensive guidance on:
- Botanical identity and quality
- Wild collection
- Post-harvest handling
- Additional processing and handling
- Farm and facility standards
- Record keeping
Good Compounding and Dispensing Practices
For dispensaries and apothecaries. Includes extensive guidance on
- General practices – including ingredients and quality control
- Herbal compounding practices
- Packaging and labeling
- Records – including compounding and dispensing records
- Complaints and recalls
Every individual and organization in the supply chain for botanicals and botanical products should follow the guidelines appropriate to their role and keep records.
These guidelines are freely available on the AHPA website in the resources section.
Relationships are important in the botanical supply chain. Larger companies often have long standing relationships with herb farmers and collectors who have established histories of providing quality botanicals.
Our small local herb farmers, wildcrafters, herb shops, and apothecaries are treasures and I advocate supporting them as much as possible. They usually possess intimate knowledge of their plants and the land. These folks might not have the resources for testing that the larger companies do, but usually they care deeply and passionately about their communities and their work. If they consistently follow the guidelines mentioned above that are appropriate to their role then, in all likelihood, their product will be of superior quality.
Your Role in Product Quality
- Remember that storage of your herbs is important, and this includes storage at home.
- Purchase herbs in smaller quantities that can be used within six months.
- Store your herbs in a cool, dry place that is out of direct sunlight and not subject to extreme temperature fluctuations.
- Wash your hand before handling your herbs and make sure that any utensils that you use, like scoops or spoons, are clean and dry.
To sum up my recommendations
- Avoid purchasing herbs (and supplements) from third party sellers on Amazon or similar high-volume distributors.
- Check the quality assurance and testing procedures of any company you consider purchasing from. If these are not available on the company website, or if you have questions call customer service.
- If you purchase from a small, local business have a conversation. Ask them about their quality assurance procedures. Odds are they’ll be happy to chat with you about it.
- Remember your role in herb safety. Follow the home storage guidelines given above.
Check out my resources page for a list of trusted sources for herbs and herbal products.