My interview with Dr Robert Verkerk

Traditional chinese herbal medicine ingredient selection with ho

Late last year I interviewed Dr Robert Verkerk, founder and director of Alliance for Natural Health International, about the threats to our health freedom and what we can do about them.

Here’s an excerpt from that interview, in which he discusses the moves afoot to severely restrict your access to natural health products and even to information about health and nutrition.

Sarah Best: Let’s start with the big-picture view. What are the biggest threats to our health freedom right now? If ‘the powers that be’ are successful in all they are currently trying to achieve, what health freedoms that we take for granted now will we no longer have, say, five years down the line?

Dr Robert Verkerk: Unfortunately, it’s not scaremongering to say that our ability to care for our own health as we see fit is under the greatest threat in our history. The screws are being tightened in every direction.

We hear all the time from regulators – whether trading blocs like the EU or supranational organisations like Codex Alimentarius – that “the public must be protected” through comprehensive new legislation. However, when you actually look at the proposed or existing laws, it’s frighteningly obvious that the only people being protected are those in the big corporations. Their power and ability to reap enormous profits from our healthcare will be very safe indeed if they achieve their aims!

In short, the main problems in the EU come from EU-based legislation that will, amongst other things, (a) ban many thousands of herbal medicinal products from May 2011, (b) set unscientifically low limits on doses of vitamins and minerals in food supplements, and (c) ban any claim about the benefits of foods or food ingredients, unless pre-approved by EU authorities according to very narrow criteria that are often impossible to achieve.

These laws are already in place, but their provisions are in a ‘sleeping’ or transitional phase to give manufacturers and suppliers time to adjust to the radical changes. They will come fully into force after preset time periods – for example, the three legislative catastrophes I’ve just outlined are expected to become fully operational EU-wide in the narrow window between May 2011 and December 2012. We refer to this as “boiling the frog slowly” – the changes are made gradually and incrementally, so that people don’t notice what’s going on until it’s too late. We’re pretty much at that point now.

And all that is without even mentioning the infamous Codex Alimentarius! Codex is a system of guidelines, recommendations and standards, developed by a collaboration of over 170 national governments generally working in cahoots with some of the biggest corporations on the planet.

From the outside, it might appear that Codex’s objectives are noble: “protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair practices in the food trade”. But, as always, the devil is in the detail, and these global guidelines and standards nearly always exist for the benefit of the largest corporations, while leaving smaller suppliers – those who are likely to be more innovative and ethical in outlook – out in the cold.

The problem is that the things that the natural healthcare movement sees as basically harmful and to be avoided – such as GM foods, contaminants, food irradiation, additives, pesticide residues and other synthetic chemicals – are pushed for all they’re worth. Beneficial things, like vitamins and minerals or plausible and meaningful health claims that help consumers to make informed food-selection decisions, are given a very tough time indeed.

SB: You began by outlining the situation as it is specifically in the EU. How similar or different is it in the US, Canada and Australia?

RV: With globalisation being the force it is, prospects for the US and Canada are similar to those in the EU. Canada is actually already a lot closer to the EU, mainly because Canadian citizens haven’t risen against the bureaucrats in the same way that those in the US have. I commend the work being done right now by my colleagues in our Washington office, as they are on the front lines.

Australia has gone for a medicalised model of natural health, which has already limited the diversity of products available as well as their therapeutic efficiency. It’s a slippery slope once you give up on the notion that foods can heal.

SB: Many health-conscious people find it hard to get too concerned about these issues as they have always been able to make their own choices about their health and can’t imagine it any other way. They live in a free country and can’t conceive of their governments preventing them from accessing health essentials that are important to them. But to what extent can the law in fact govern the choices available to us in this area?

RV: The truth is stark: the individual has almost no rights when it comes to national security and health protection. On those issues, governments have enormous power to dictate. It’s meant to be for our own good, but of course the agenda is somewhat different.

SB: Your organisation is currently campaigning to protect consumer access to herbal medicines in Europe, in the face of the legislation you referred to earlier, which is due to come into force in just a few months. After the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive, what is the next major piece of legislation affecting health freedom that is scheduled to come into force in the EU?

RV: The Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) was partially enacted in 2007, but most of its really nasty provisions are still to come. It will be fully implemented when the Parma-based European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has completed its evaluation of about 4,500 generic health claims, which is expected to be by early 2012.

The NHCR governs anything to do with health claims on commercial products – in other words, claims as to the health benefits of particular foods or food constituents in any product sold to the consumer. It covers not just the written word, but also the spoken word, images, diagrams, videos or any other form of communication.

It uses Napoleonic law to ban all health claims except those that are specifically allowed by EFSA. The NHCR, in our view, amounts to the greatest restriction on free speech related to natural healthcare ever seen, both because it enshrines Napoleonic law in the realm of health claims about products and because it imposes standards for scientific substantiation that are simply unachievable for most foods and ingredients – especially important therapeutic agents like botanicals, amino acids, probiotics and enzymes.

Currently, the NHCR only covers the marketing and sale of products. How does this apply to, say, claims made in books? Well, if a book, magazine or other publication makes reference to food or supplement products, this would be deemed fully within the scope of the NHCR. If the publication was to imply any kind of benefit of a given product – and the benefit was not on EFSA’s list of approved claims – this would be illegal. The NHCR will effectively force publications to use only generic references to ingredients. In other words, they will be able to mention particular vitamins, herbs or probiotics, but any mention of actual products and brands will be out of bounds except in the likely very few cases where approved claims will have been granted.

SB: Companies operating in the natural health field are already all but prevented from even mentioning the major diseases, let alone making any claims in relation to them, the implication being that cancer, heart disease and so on are the sole province of orthodox medicine. As more and more restrictions are placed on freedom of speech when it comes to nutrition, health and healing, what does that mean for the person who is diagnosed with, say, cancer, and the ease with which they can access the information they need in order to make the best choices?

RV: Regarding ‘major’ diseases, there is a huge educational component. How many people know about the disease-fighting compounds within leafy green vegetables or within, say, wasabi or fermented non-GM soya products? If people are not given this information, they have no way of knowing the difference between choosing foods with these properties, and having any standard meal loaded with sugar and other simple carbohydrates – foods which, instead of fighting cancer, actually feed its growth.

But if you look at the history of natural healthcare, one inescapable conclusion is that there has been an extended turf war going on between it and orthodox medicine for hundreds of years. At the moment, the gloves are off, and governments in collusion with big business and the medical establishment seem determined to regulate natural healthcare out of existence, or at least keep it out of the mainstream.

SB: There are so many people who are absolutely passionate about holistic health and natural, organic foods that the opposition to the measures you’ve outlined is guaranteed to be enormous. In your opinion is it likely that this opposition will be sufficient to prevent these planned restrictions to our health freedom? Or is that only likely if enough people wake up to what is going on and start campaigning in an organised and coordinated manner now?

RV: Most of these EU laws are already in force, so it’s actually very difficult to stop them until after their impact is felt following their full implementation. You can be sure that our legal challenge won’t be the only court action that happens as a result of these new regulations. However, people need to be vigilant and support these actions: with money, time, expertise, spreading the word – any way they can. The single most important thing from now on is that the natural healthcare movement, and its supporters, must forget any infighting and begin to speak with a single, unified voice.

People must arm themselves with the facts and begin to counter some of the nonsense out there! Disinformation is deliberately spread by the drivers of the regulatory steamroller – and it’s designed to confuse people and cause them to put their heads back in the sand. There has never been a more important time for people to step up to the plate and protect, develop, learn about and impart knowledge about our natural heritage.

Everything about our physical being and how it has come to be over millennia is related to our interaction with the natural world around us. To give this up for the sake of a few transnational corporations, their patented drugs, and their simplified, synthetic, chemical-laden, genetically modified, irradiated and heavily processed food, makes no sense. To me at least.

To find out more about the threats to our health freedom, Alliance for Natural Health’s International’s campaigns to counter these threats, and how you can support its efforts, visit or

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