Baby steps, but its getting there slowly.
Johannesburg - The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has joined an EU consortium to research the safety of plant food supplements, including vitamins, which is currently an unregulated industry in SA.
“We need an analysis of the benefits and risks associated to plant food supplements,” said CSIR project co-ordinator Paulo Meoni.
He said at the moment, any supplier wanting to sell a plant food supplement in SA, needed to inform the Medicines Control Council (MCC) that it was introducing its product to the market and that the supplier took responsibility for its safety and efficacy.
“The MCC issues a number but that is not a registration number [as in the case of medicine], it is simply an acknowledgement that you are introducing this product,” said Meoni.
The plan was for the EU consortium to conduct research over four years and then draft recommendations to the European food safety agency on what guidelines it could issue to countries on how to better regulate the plant food supplement industry.
Meoni said plant food supplements fell in a category between medicine and food. In SA, plant food supplements are considered to fall in the category of “complimentary medicines”.
“They contain plant material with some beneficial effects on human health but are not the same as medicine. You cannot take a food supplement and hope for a TB or Aids cure.”
It was very complicated to assess the benefits of plant food supplements, which include vitamins, to a person’s health.
“We need to gather scientific data… We have joined the EU consortium to look at the evidence, either that is already present or that has to be created.”
There were “hundreds” such products currently available on the South African market.
One of the main risks associated with plant food supplements was the interaction with drugs.
“Sometimes food supplements may interact with the activity of drugs… they could decrease the effect of the drug or increase its side effects.”
In plant food supplements that have not been tested over a long period, one may find “toxic effects that have not been observed before”.
Meoni’s advice to consumers would be to buy products that have been tried and tested.
“Buy products containing plants that have been used throughout the world for a very long time and from a maker [producer] that you know.”
Products containing a combination of different little-known plants whose effects have not been proven over at least 15 years, should be treated with caution, he said.