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Weather patterns and political events can have a profound impact on the worldwide availability and pricing of medicinal plant and spice crops, as well as on conventional and other specialty agricultural products. Veteran HerbalGram readers will recall that years ago each issue contained a “Market Report” by fourth-generation herb and spice trader Peter Landes. Peter would provide clear examples of how events in faraway countries would affect supply and pricing for culinary herbs, spices, and other natural materials, including medicinal herbs and other interesting plant materials.

For example, in a series of natural disasters close to home, the pounding rains and winds from recent hurricanes have all but devastated this year’s Florida saw palmetto crop. The latest edition of the International Trade Centre’s Market News Service reports, and conversations with saw palmetto traders confirm, that saw palmetto prices have about doubled in August and September due to reduced collection of saw palmetto berries, a direct result of hurricanes Charley and Frances. (And now there’s the added damage from hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne, drenching Florida after the ITC report was issued.)

Saw palmetto traders tell me that the price may triple before it stabilizes. Whether it returns to its former levels, i.e., next year, or the year afterwards, remains to be seen. This increase portends another classic problem in the herb industry. In previous times when the price of an herbal commodity rose significantly due to shortages, unscrupulous suppliers would sometimes enter the market with adulterated material that could be sold under the market price of the true quality botanical material. In the case of saw palmetto, it is at least theoretically possible that some suppliers might try to adulterate the oil from the ripe fruit with oils from lower cost ingredients (e.g., olive oil, pumpkin seed oil, and soy oil).

Fortunately, the imminent publication of more rigorous good manufacturing practices (GMPs) by the FDA (now rumored to be published some time in 2005, not late 2004 as previously indicated by FDA representatives), plus the advent of third-party certification programs, might either ward off potential suppliers of adulterated saw palmetto material a priori, or help detect them if they try to foist off inferior material to an ever increasingly sophisticated and vigilant market.

The potential problems with the saw palmetto market suggest why it is important to have third-party groups that can monitor the identity and quality of various botanical and other dietary supplements. In this issue, consultant/writer Marie Whybark contributes an article on the four primary third-party verification programs currently operating in the U.S. Most of these programs issue seals that can help both consumers and health professionals recognize dietary supplement products manufactured under appropriate good manufacturing practices—products worthy of consumer confidence.

Saw palmetto has been shown to be highly safe and effective in many controlled clinical trials and meta-analyses for treating the symptoms associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia in middle-aged and older men. Or as dietary supplements are allowed to say, “helps maintain prostate health,” “helps normal urinary function,” or, as I like to say, “helps maintain a happy prostate!” This safety and efficacy are based on the availability and use of high quality saw palmetto extracts, and the future benefits are based on continued availability of good quality herbal material, regardless of the price. A word of caution to those who would contemplate “cutting” saw palmetto with lower-cost materials: Thou shall not commit adulteration! You might have been able to get away with it in the past, but not anymore!