At the end of last week, we leaked a letter sent by Elizabeth Williamson, a Reading University professor, to Andrew Lansley, the UK Health Minister.

So far, we have received no direct response from the good Professor. All we have seen are her comments to journalist Shane Starling, made during an interview for a Nutraingredients article. We'd like to stress that contrary to the title of the article, we didn't attack the professor. We simply exposed a letter that we believe contained misleading information that we presume, given the stated, intended recipient, was destined for the Health Minister. We in turn put on public record our comment to Prof Williamson in a second letter, as well as a third letter to the Health Minister, which provided our views on what appeared to be serious misconceptions contained in the professor's original letter.

Professor Williamson told Nutraingredients that to leak something like this, “Casts aspersions on my professional career and my department and implies that I am inept and corrupt.” She also said that she was, “Crushed and devastated by it and haven’t slept in four days”. Apart from suggesting that she might benefit from some valerian, we'd like to direct Professor Williamson to our reply, posted on the Nutraingredients site:

Please don't lose sleep, Prof Williamson

We are sorry that Prof Williamson has chosen to take this personally, but she hasn't been attacked! Her ideas written in a letter have however been contested. But this is not about her, us or any of the people in the herbal sector. It is about the fundamental way in which foods and medicines are treated by regulators in the UK and Europe more generally. The implications for consumers of a government, such as the UK, following the advice given by Prof Williamson, are huge. Prof Williamson has previously published important papers showing how dietary components and food supplements can have therapeutic properties (e.g. Phytother Res. 2007; 21(2): 99-112) - now she implies, through her letter, that these same products should be removed from the market unless they are authorised successfully as drugs (under the THMPD scheme, which guarantees neither safety nor efficacy, or using the 'well established use' or full marketing authorisation routes). The sheer cost and practicalities of this mean that the vast majority would be lost from the market. Polyherbal products would be the most severely affected, yet these are the ones with the strongest evidence of benefit, particularly from non-European traditions. I am at a loss as to why Prof Williamson doesn't simply justify her position, rather than losing sleep.

The paper makes extensive reference to beneficial and even therapeutic properties of foods, food ingredients and herbal food supplements, so it is a surprise that Prof Williamson now appears to suggest that such products should be regulated as drugs.

We will keep you posted on any response we get from Prof Williamson.

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