A survey by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), the second in the last two years, has again found that a number of herbal supplements or their ingredients have been irradiated but not labelled to indicate this. The distributors involved have agreed to remove the affected batches from sale and take action to resolve the problem.
Phil Costigan, director of the Irish Health Trade Assocation, told NutraIngredients.com: "The findings are very disappointing. There is an understanding in our industry that supplements and natural health products do not have irradiated components."
The survey found that more than half of 26 herbal supplements tested in 2003 had been either wholly irradiated or had a component that was irradiated, yet none carried the appropriate labelling required under EU law. These included aloe vera and other herbs produced by Solgar, and ginseng, saw palmetto and garlic products by a number of other companies.
A similar survey published in 2003 reported that 42 per cent of herbal supplements tested had been irradiated.
Irradiation is used to reduce harmful micro-organisms in food or kill insects or pests that may be harboured in certain herbs and fruit or vegetables. At levels used on food it is not harmful to consumers but the FSAI said the breaches on labelling showed a lack of traceability throughout the entire supply chain.
Dr Pat O'Mahony, chief specialist of biotechnology at the FSAI, said: "Only a limited number of foods that have EU-wide authorisation, or are approved by individual member states, may be irradiated and sold in the EU. However, any authorised irradiated food on the EU market must be labelled appropriately. Accurate labelling is essential to ensure traceability and allow consumers make an informed decision on the food they purchase."
A definitive list of foods authorised for irradiation is being developed by the European Commission, but as yet only dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings are included. Whole herbal supplements are not currently authorised for irradiation.
The IHTA, which represents 33 supplement companies, mainly distributors, in Ireland, said it does not recommend the use of irradiation, as "there is little or no consumer confidence in the process, in our experience".
There are also questions about the long-term safety of the practice and some evidence to suggest that irradiation may adversely affect micronutrients and the active principles of plants.
"The modern practice of irradiation has no place in these ancient traditions [of herbal medicine] and therefore herbal products which have been irradiated can no longer be considered as bone fide natural health products," said a statement from the group.
The IHTA says it will request all manufacturers involved in the current recall to produce validated assurance that products are free from irradiation before being restocked. Other supplement companies will be contacted for similar assurances and products from non-compliant manufacturers will be replaced with non-irradiated products.
The FSAI is planning further sampling and testing of herbal products.
The UK, Germany and the Netherlands all reported finding irradiated supplements in surveys during 2002, although at lower levels than in Ireland.