Drought conditions in the Southeastern United States during 2007 have had a negative impact on the supply of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens, Arecaceae) berries. The company Valensa International, LLC (Eustis, FL), a developer and supplier of a saw palmetto super-critical extract and other botanical-based ingredients, announced in late August of 2007 that the year’s crop of saw palmetto berries has been one of the worst in recent years and that the harvesting season ended much earlier than previous seasons.1
However, this does not necessarily mean that consumers of saw palmetto will be faced with exorbitant prices or immediate low availability of saw palmetto products. According to Valensa, it is expected that retail consumers should be relatively unaffected in terms of potential price increases due to finished product and work-in-process inventories that are still in the distribution pipeline from the healthy saw palmetto harvests of preceding years (S. Hulse, e-mail, September 11, 2007).
Furthermore, Michael Huffman, president and CEO of Plantation Botanicals (Felda, FL), a major and long-established supplier of saw palmetto, noted that the industry has been harvesting from an ever-increasing geographical area over the past several years, and this has helped to boost the saw palmetto supply (oral communication, November 12, 2007).
According to Valensa, the poor saw palmetto harvest is the result of both recent drought conditions and aggressive harvesting of green, unripe saw palmetto berries.1 Saw palmetto grows and is wild-harvested only in the Southeastern United States—primarily in Florida but also in southern areas of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. During the harvest season, which typically takes place from mid-August through the end of October, extractors and wholesalers contract with wild harvesters to obtain saw palmetto berries. The 2007 season’s initial extensive bloom of saw palmetto blossoms led to expectations of a healthy harvest, but continued drought conditions ultimately caused a significant drop and loss of berries. The low availability of mature saw palmetto berries was further caused by berry buyers’ purchasing of unripened saw palmetto berries from harvesters.
“The market for the green product has definitely grown over the years,” said Huffman. He explained that some harvesters pick saw palmetto as early as June and July, selling the green berries to buyers who will purchase them for low prices. These harvesters collect the berries from local, traditional areas where they are easily accessible and offer a quick and convenient source of income. This depletes those traditional areas of mature berries in later months. Harvesters are typically willing to drive farther away to collect berries once they have matured, as those sell for a higher price due to the superior quality. The increased transportation costs and harvesting time spent by collectors often raises the cost of mature saw palmetto berries even further for buyers.
In a Valensa press release, Rudi E. Moerck, PhD, president of Valensa, explained that the oil content and quality of immature berries are much lower than ripe berries. He claimed that phytomedicinal and nutraceutical preparations made from immature berries therefore are often suspect for their quality and functionality, particularly as treatments for symptoms of benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH), the primary medicinal use of saw palmetto berry extract preparations. According to Dr. Moerck, the only clinical trials showing positive effects of saw palmetto for symptoms of BPH have tested extracts produced from mature berries.*
“The real shame of these early harvesting practices is that they take away from the industry’s ability to acquire ripe, nutraceuticalquality saw palmetto berries, thereby decreasing the availability and increasing the costs for everyone who is serious about saw palmetto as an effective supplement in promoting men’s health,” he stated.1
Due to the season’s shortage of mature berries, Valensa announced that it would raise its prices for nutraceutical-quality saw palmetto extract by about 20-30%, depending on contractual situations. However, according to Sid Hulse, Valensa’s vice president of marketing and sales, this does not necessarily mean that the prices of saw palmetto products sold to consumers will dramatically increase. “From a pricing standpoint, retail consumers should be relatively unaffected this year  and even into the foreseeable future,” he stated (e-mail, September 11, 2007). “The cost of saw palmetto raw material represents only about 10% of the total retail price, and recent prices of the saw palmetto extract at the manufacturer level have been at the low end of the spectrum.”
Valensa sells its saw palmetto extract to manufacturers and does not market directly to consumers. According to Hulse, the company has observed that the majority of raw material costs seem to be absorbed by industry throughout the distribution chain, so that even though there are fluctuations in product pricing each year, retail prices have remained relatively stable.
Hulse added that the lower supply of ripe saw palmetto berries from the 2007 season should not result in a shortage of saw palmetto products at the consumer level. “For the 2007-2008 year, there should be sufficient supply to meet market demand because
*Most saw palmetto clinical trials have been performed in Europe on European-made saw palmetto preparations (with raw material obtained from the United States), most of which were liposterolic soft extracts manufactured from raw materials that were tested in conformance with an official pharmacopeial monograph for quality standards, such as the European Pharmacopoeia monograph. This monograph requires that the ripe dried fruit contain minimum 11% of total fatty acids and requires the determination of the percentage content of each fatty acid, with the peak area of lauric acid being not less than 20% of the total area of the peaks. Chemical profiles for ripe and unripe saw palmetto berries, powdered berries, berry extracts, etc. from various stages of ripening have been published showing a characteristic profile corresponding to the stage of the ripening of the berry. [Source: Peng TS, Popin WF, Huffman M. Systematic evaluation of quality management of saw palmetto products. Quality Management of Nutraceuticals. American Chemical Society Symposium Series, No. 803: Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 2002.]
of current inventories in the pipeline based on two good saw palmetto crops in 2005 and 2006. If there is another bad crop during the 2008 harvest season, we may very well see shortages of saw palmetto on the shelf.”
According to Hulse, the 2003 and 2004 saw palmetto crops were also poor. The 2004 crop, in particular, suffered when 4 hurricanes hit the Southeastern United States.2 “The 2007 crop is worse than even the hurricane-riddled 2004 crop,” said Hulse. “This is the earliest we can remember the saw palmetto buying season ending—even earlier than the bad crop year of 2004.”
Huffman stated that, although this season has been subjected to one of the worst droughts in 50 years, the 2007 harvest is still not the worst he has witnessed. He agreed with Valensa that the season has ended prematurely and that there is a shortage of saw palmetto berries due to drought and early harvesting—which has raised prices of saw palmetto raw material—but he stressed that a lot of berries were still harvested this season. Moreover, he added that the 2007 crop has certainly not been as bad as the crop of 1995.
The saw palmetto crops of 2005 and 2006 were relatively large. According to the American Herbal Products Association’s Tonnage Survey of Wild-Harvested North American Plants, 2004-2005, published in February of 2007, the reported saw palmetto crop of 2005 (approximately 2,900 tons of dried berries) was practically double the reported harvest of 2004 (approximately 1,460 tons of dried berries).3 Whereas the poor 2003 and 2004 crops essentially removed saw palmetto extract inventory from the market, the larger crops of 2005 and 2006 alleviated the situation.
The cyclical nature of droughts and the seasonal threat of hurricanes in the Southeastern United States will continue to threaten the supply of saw palmetto.4 Such weather conditions could determine whether future harvests are able to meet the annual market demand. A US survey from 2002 found that nearly 2.5 million adult males reported using saw palmetto,5 although it is probable that this figure has increased in the intervening years since this survey was conducted.
In light of the heavy picking and purchasing of immature green saw palmetto berries, Valensa representatives stressed that manufacturers should be careful of where and how they obtain their saw palmetto raw materials. “There is an objective standard [in the United States] for saw palmetto that is based on years of studying the makeup of mature saw palmetto berries and their extracts— the only saw palmetto material that has been shown to be safe and effective in dealing with the symptoms of BPH,” said Hulse. “This is the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) monograph for saw palmetto. If we want consumers to take us seriously about the issue of quality, we should use this objective standard. The science exists to ensure the quality of the product.” He added that tests for saw palmetto quality have often been based on total fatty acid content, but that these tests fail to give an accurate assessment of the identity and quality of the extract.
Valensa offers a free saw palmetto testing service to interested companies—regardless of whether they are Valensa customers or not. The analysis is done on saw palmetto extracts at the Valensa laboratories in Eustis, Florida, and the profiling is based on the USP monograph on saw palmetto extract.6
- Outlook for 2007 saw palmetto harvest seen as “poor” by leading US supplier [press release]. Eustis, FL: Valensa; August 28, 2007.
- Saw palmetto price rises after bad harvest. NutraIngredients.com. October 13, 2004. Available at: http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/ news/ng.asp?id=55365-saw-palmetto-price. Accessed August 27, 2007.
- American Herbal Products Association. Tonnage Survey of Select North American Wild-Harvested Plants, 2004-2005. Silver Spring, MD: American Herbal Products Association; 2007.
- Douaud C. Saw palmetto drought drives prices up, raises supply questions. NutraIngredients.com. September 7, 2007. Available at: http:// www.nutraingredients-usa.com/news/ng.asp?id=79599-valensa-sawpalmetto-usplus. Accessed October 5, 2007.
- Barnes PM, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin RL. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults: United States, 2002. Adv Data. 2004;343:1-19.
- United States Pharmacopeia and National Formulary (USP 26-NF 21 First Supplement). Rockville, MD: United States Pharmacopeia Convention; 2003:3024-3025.