Representatives of Britain's 2,000 health shops have been told in Brussels that there is now no chance of stopping an EU directive which will close most of them down.
This is because it is part of an avalanche of EU legislation which is being "fast-tracked" to give eastern European countries a chance to comply with it before they join an enlarged Union.
There are several odd features about this "Herbal Medicines Products" directive, for which pharmaceutical companies have been lobbying behind the scenes for years.
Although it is a British initiative, championed by our Medicines Control Agency, it seeks to apply to herbal remedies the principle of continental law that things can only be allowed when they are specifically authorised. This reverses the British tradition that everything is allowed unless
Under the directive such herbal remedies as hypericum, rhodiola and echinacea, used by five million people in Britain for a wide range of conditions, could only be sold if they had been through the MCA's prohibitively expensive licensing procedures.
Thousands of safe herbal products will thus have to be removed from the market, which is why many health shops will be forced to close.
What makes this even odder is that the MCA tried it on before, when in 1994 it proposed a statutory instrument which it claimed was necessary to implement a 1965 Brussels directive, passed three years before Britain's Medicines Act specifically exempted herbal medicines from licensing
When the European Commission explained that this was not what the directive intended, the MCA was told, after heated discussion in Cabinet, to drop its proposal. Now seven years later, the MCA has got its way, by successfully lobbying for an EU directive.
There are no health reasons for banning the 3,000 herbal preparations currently on sale in Britain. Almost all adverse reactions linked to herbal remedies (infinitely fewer than those due to synthetic drugs made by pharmaceutical firms) are caused by preparations made up by Chinese practitioners. These are specifically exempted from the directive.