Herbal medicine & health food shops
How the law applies to products sold in these types of shop, including food supplements, cosmetics, and products of animal origin
This guidance is for England
Many traditional herbal products (such as Chinese herbal products) are popular with consumers who are looking for products with health benefits. Such products are often on the borderline between regulated categories of goods such as medicines, foods and cosmetics. As different legal requirements apply to these different product types it is important that you are clear about the category into which your products fall. The legal requirements governing these products are enforced mainly by trading standards services and by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
There are certain requirements for herbal remedies, which are classed as 'medicines' and must be safe. You may also be selling food items, cosmetic products, or animal products, which all have specific legal requirements.
Whether or not your products fall within these categories, it is important to ensure that consumers are not misled about the extent or existence of products' health benefits, and there are some specific restrictions on claims. There are further requirements in relation to claims made about the product, quantity markings, pricing, and consumer rights.
In the guide
Herbal remedies are medicinal products. They must have a marketing authorisation (or a product licence) unless they meet certain exemptions, which allow them to be sold as unlicensed herbal medicines. To meet the terms of the exemptions, products must be solely plant-based, have no written medicinal indications for use and must not have a trade name. Herbal remedies, even if exempt from licensing, still have to be safe and be labelled in accordance with the Medicines Act 1968.
The primary decision as to whether or not a product is a medicinal product is for the MHRA to make. If you have any doubts about whether the products that you sell are medicines or are exempt from licensing, you should contact MHRA either via its website or on 020 3080 6000.
Strict import controls exist regarding products of animal origin. Products of animal origin include all types of meat and meat products (including poultry), all types of fish and shellfish and products made from them (like oyster sauce), eggs and egg products, wild game, honey, and dairy products. It is recommended that you only purchase food products of animal origin from reputable suppliers who can prove that the food has been legally imported into the UK via proper commercial channels. If you wish to import animal products, your local authority environmental health service should be able to advise you on the current legal situation.
If officers believe an animal product has been imported illegally into the UK, they may take it away for destruction or may ask you not to use it until you can prove it has been imported legally. A sample may also be taken of the item. You could be prosecuted for importing animal products illegally.
Some traditional remedies have been found to contain both animal and plant parts from endangered species, in contravention of legislation enforced by a number of bodies including the police. Should you have any concerns about ingredients, detailed information on endangered species is available on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) website. CITES's main aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Alternatively, you could seek advice from the wildlife crime unit of your local police force or customs and excise.
The definition of food includes any food, drink or food supplement that is part of the diet. Anything that is not a medicinal product, and is eaten or taken as a drink, is a food. Many of the products you sell are likely to be legally classed as food, particularly prepacked items such as herbal teas.
The Food Safety Act 1990, EU Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers and the Food Information Regulations 2014 govern, amongst other things, labelling, ingredients and quality. The Act creates specific offences for contaminants in food, false descriptions and misleading claims.
All foods and food supplements must be labelled with certain information in English. Where the food is sold loose, such as Chinese herbs from jars, or is packed by you in the shop for direct sale to your customers, the following details are required:
- a food name that customers can understand, indicating the true nature of the food
- a statement, where applicable, that the product or ingredients have been irradiated or genetically modified (see also 'Labelling of GM foods')
- a declaration of the presence of any of the 14 specified allergens (see 'Food allergens & intolerance' and 'Specified allergenic ingredients - Q&A')
Where the food is 'prepacked', a number of labelling requirements need to be fulfilled - see 'Labelling of prepacked food', 'Food labelled in a foreign language' and 'Date & lot marking of prepacked food'.
Specific guidance on food supplements and nutrition information can be found on the GOV.UK website.
EU Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 on cosmetic productsdefines a cosmetic product as: 'any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lips and external genital organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, protecting them, keeping them in good condition or correcting body odours'. It does not apply to medicinal products, medical devices or biocidal products.
If you import cosmetic products, you are required to notify the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) about the importation. The importer also needs to have a 'product information package' readily accessible for inspection, giving details about the cosmetic product. If you are not importing, but are obtaining cosmetics from an importer, you should obtain reliable assurances from the importer that it has complied with the above requirements.
For further information see 'Cosmetic products'.
Misleading and illegal claims
Any claims made about a product must be true and not misleading. This includes oral, written or pictorial claims. In addition, you are required to disclose any adverse information you know about a product if an average consumer would need to know this information to make an informed choice - for example, if it is known to be ineffective for the purposes for which it is commonly bought.
These requirements, which come under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) apply to all products, including but not limited to, medicines, foods, food supplements and cosmetics.
Many consumers buy herbal and 'health' products because of claims or beliefs that these products can aid slimming or prevent, cure or treat medical conditions and illnesses. Often, such claims are not supported by evidence or are entirely false. If a product is marketed with any sort of health claim, first consider whether it is a medicine, food supplement or cosmetic, and then make sure it complies with the rules for its product type. If it is not one of those product types, do not make claims (and do not pass on manufacturers' claims) unless you are sure that you can substantiate them.
Where you offer advice or services, you should take care not to misrepresent or overstate the credentials of any member of staff or anyone else involved in marketing your products. For example, in the context of herbal and health products, it is likely that it would be misleading to refer to someone as a 'doctor' unless they hold a full qualification as a medical doctor.
Additionally, as worldwide efforts to control the exploitation of endangered species increase, manufacturers have been known to include illegal ingredients (for example, tiger and bear parts) in products but to remove any references to these ingredients from packaging and advertisements. These manufacturers rely on their customers' knowledge and experience of the products' contents instead. Under the CPRs it is illegal to hide the fact that a product cannot legally be sold.
As well as the general prohibition on misleading claims and omissions, some claims are prohibited outright.
Any claims made about a product must be true and not misleading. This includes oral, written or pictorial claims. Particular requirements include the following:
- any claim that a food has 'tonic' properties is prohibited
- medicinal claims (that is, any claim in relation to preventing, treating or curing human disease) must not be made for any food or cosmetic product
- it is a criminal offence to 'advertise' (by any written or oral statement) offering to treat, to provide a remedy for, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment of cancer
- under the CPRs it is an offence to make a false claim that a product can cure any 'illnesses, dysfunction or malformations', whether or not the claim would mislead the average consumer
All consumer products (including food and medicines) must be safe.
Products must be sold to customers with appropriate safety information / warnings being given in English. Such information might include, for example, dosage instructions and possible side effects. They might also include classes of persons for whom the product is unsuitable - for example, pregnant women, children, and persons suffering from a particular disorder such as high blood pressure.
You are strongly advised to obtain products from reputable suppliers, and to retain any documentation that you receive from them, such as invoices.
Weights and measures
Prepacked goods, such as food / food supplements / cosmetics, all legally require an accurate quantity marking. This should typically be the weight, volume, or number of items in the package. Metric quantities must be used.
If you are selling any products loose (from bulk) by reference to weight, you must use approved weighing equipment bearing the appropriate stamp or sticker. Sales must be by reference to metric quantities.
Please see 'Packaged goods - average quantity' and 'Weighing equipment for legal use' and contact your local trading standards service for further advice and assistance with weights and measures issues.
There is a general requirement to display prices for retail goods on offer. However, if the goods can only be obtained as a result of a service (such as a consultation) there is no need to price the goods. However, if your services have a 'fixed price' then you must provide your customers with price information (using a price list, for example).
Prices you display must be accurate. It is an unfair commercial practice to give false or deceptive information about the price of goods, to omit material information about the price (such as compulsory additional charges or taxes) or if the value of any 'saving' displayed on a special offer was exaggerated.
You may also wish to seek advice from a trade or practitioner organisation, such as the following:
British Herbal Medicine Association
PO Box 583, Exeter, EX1 9GX
Tel: 0845 680 1134
Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine
Office 5, Ferndale Business Centre, 1 Exeter Street, Norwich, NR2 4QB
Tel: 01603 623994
Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK)
314 Premier House, 112 Station Road, Edgeware Road, London, HA8 7BJ
Tel: 020 8951 3030
This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.
The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation. Information on amendments to UK legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab; amendments to EU legislation are usually incorporated into the text. Amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide.
Last reviewed/updated: February 2015
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