I get calls several times a week on how to import herbs and Moringa without problems. Here is our story which shut down our business for over a year. You need to read this before you order, spending your hard earned money on product from foreign countries. This article was originally published in Yahoo Voices in 2011. There is an update at the end of this article.
We had no import or export business experience when we started in 2010, other than buying product from an Indian company, Genera that sent their products by FedEx international. The products were shipped right to our house. I have updated this original article with a few notes at the end. Please read the complete article for those updated notes.
You need to hear this story before you make the decision to import herbs. Our business was new, not a year old yet. We had started on a shoestring budget. We had ordered two previous shipments of Moringa powder, caps, and teas from India by Fed Ex. Those first two shipments were delivered without a hitch. We were not expecting trouble.
A this point in the business, we decided to change companies because we wanted to carry Organic Certified Moringa products. We wanted to give our customers the best product available. We spent two months checking out companies and their claims of organic status. Most of them could not give me proof when pushed. We finally found a company who had real certifications and a good reputation. They told us they would ship the order by an air freight shipping company, not UPS or Fed Ex to save on costs. We agreed, having no experience on that shipping procedure and problems. We had no real import experience from a business standpoint. That was our first mistake, lack of experience. We just figured that when they were flown in, we could just pick them up without delay or problems.
The Nightmare Begins: The shipment came into LA, and then was trucked down to San Diego to a holding office. I had no idea that I was required to obtain a custom broker for the needed paperwork to get the package released. We called around and were shocked at the cost. The lowest custom broker charged was three hundred dollars. The paperwork takes time to be approved. The holding office gives you three, free days, then they charge $30 dollars a day hostage fees on your order.
Even with the paperwork, you must then wait until customs clears it. It took over the three free days, for customs agents to even get to our package.Customs then flagged it for 'intense examination.' That means they take it apart and send in samples to their lab. This can take days or weeks depending on the time.
It was a week before the holding office let us take the package home, even though we could not use the product or sell it. It had to wait to be cleared by the FDA and Customs office first. We left with paying the holding office over a hundred dollars.
So we bring it home, torn apart by customs and the FDA agents. Customs had taken out $25.00 of product for samples, so that was irritating. It is interesting that in the end, more products were missing than marked on the FDA paperwork. The agent had gone back to inspect my order three times, even though the samples were removed the first trip. So what did she do the other two visits? Even the holding office, said that was strange behavior. We now have the order in the house but can't touch the product. We call all our customers and give them the bad news. The order cost which originally was $500.00, had now incurred another $400 in expenses.
Delay and More Delays: Well it seemed that the labs were jammed so it was a month before they would tell us anything. We had no idea what compliance issues the order might have. After 4 weeks, they informed us that the order was refused. Our stress level increased several hundred points with that call. We had to wait for another week to receive their official letter.
#1 Problem: Label Violations: The product did not express the weight of the product in ounces and pounds. The labels would have to be reconditioned. The problem is you must have a permit to touch the organic product, its label, or make changes to the label. That would cost lots of bucks plus months of paperwork. You must pay for the FDAninspections to get the reconditioned labels approved.
You have three tries to redo the label at your cost, to comply with their regulations. After three tries, you are out. They give you no help. There are 15 pages of FDA label regulations to suffer through, even to the label size and where on the bottle they must go. There are rules to font sizes and approved label fonts. They advise you to hire a specialist to help you figure this all out. I asked questions, and they refused any answers.
Customs Issues: Customs had an issue with the label because it did not state, 'Product of India', on it. Now the label stated that the leaves were grown and manufactured in India on two parts of the label but did not state the exact words they wanted. Customs would allow me to add those precise words but FDA rules said I couldn't without the proper paperwork from them. I was sick.
How to Comply for the Problems: When I called the FDA to understand how we could comply with the ounces and pounds issue, they said they could not give us any legal advice. We were advised to obtain a FDA lawyer to determine how the label should be correctly brought up to compliance. That would cost several hundred dollars and time. We found out the lawyer’s only win against the FDA about fifty percent of the time. We did not have the money for legal services.
Problem # 2: The label from the Indian company gave the website address and phone number for problem issues. That was up to speed according to FDA rules. In India, Moringa is used to prevent health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. They make many health claims for the medicinal benefits of Moringa on their websites. This is against the FDA law here. You cannot state health claims for your herbal products in most cases. If you do, the herb is then considered a drug and subject to millions of dollars of research and years of double blind studies.
So because of their website health claims, I was in violation of ‘the importation of an unapproved drug '. There was no way to bring this up to compliance.
Problem #3: Several weeks later, the FDA lab tests confirmed that the products were contaminated with mouse parts, insects, and filth. The contamination was a shock to us. We had checked the company out with both the agency that gave them the certification, the lab, and were had been so confident that the product would pass their tests and confirm its high quality. It was packaged in India and supposedly tested there too. We were devastated.
Shipment Refused Entry into the US: Things get even worse! Our next notice from customs was to lose our product and money spent on the whole deal.
Send Back or Destroy: Now I was given two choices, I had to export it back to India or destroy it under FDA supervision. I could not abandon it for then I would be charged three times the worth of the package. If I did not bring the product back, I was subject to be put in jail.
The cheapest route turned out to be to have it destroyed under supervision. The import broker was allowed to do that in their facility at the cost of another $200. If I had a large order or cargo shipment, it could have cost thousands of dollars more for the destruction procedure. Sending it back would have even been more money. It was very painful both mentally and financially to destroy the shipment.
The stress of the whole thing made me sick. I lost all of my customers who could not wait to buy their product, they needed it now. The business was shut down with no product to sell and $1000 was out in customs and custom broker charges. We were told by the holding company, that the FDA always gives packages that don't come through Fed Ex, an intense examination. He told us that it was happening more often.
It is interesting to note, that the same agent who inspected our package, and declared it's violations, got paid to destroy it. There was never any explanation to why more products were missing than listed on the paperwork. Our custom agent said that happened all the time. Where does that unlisted missing product go?
You might also find it interesting, that a friend ordered the same exact shipment, except through another state, and her order was passed through customs with flying colors. All these questions have no answers. All that red tape, delays, and trumped up label violations make the FDA a lot of money. It also puts companies out of business. Was the product contaminated or did customs contaminate it. I did keep a sample of the product. I wanted to test it later.
Problem #3: Now that the package was refused entry, our company was put on a red flag list for the future. We were a new importer, who had imported a package that did not pass inspection. We would then be given this treatment the next time around. Moringa leaves would be considered an unapproved drug in the future by the San Diego Customs office and the FDA there. So importing in the future would be impossible. This is exactly how it went down. It cost us money and the Moringa sales part of our business. Right now it is hard to buy the Moringa powder in the United States as a reasonable cost. All the Indian companies state health claims on their sites, because Moringa is used by Indian physicians for health and the prevention of disease. So none of the company’s labels were going to pass the FDA criteria.
Differences: Personal Orders and Business Orders for Resale: When you order Moringa product personally from these companies, the shipment is given a special pass through as a personal order. If you import Moringa as part of a business, you are subject to intense regulations and inspections. That is how my first orders came through Fed Ex, as a personal order. We did not realize why we got the orders so quickly and easily. It still has to go through inspection but is passed through by an exception of law, as a personal order. As a business, you are supposed to have a FDA resale clearance, an import license, and a customs broker.
What Now? We have moved to Nevada now which may help but after losing all that money, my incentive to order from India is filled with doubt and fear. It could happen again with another shipment. If you are a small company, you cannot afford the money to go through this. Our whole first season of sales was lost to those costs. We were new, starting with a shoestring budget. Even with a larger company, fighting the FDA can cost thousands of dollars, losing in the end. This is just my story, and the loss, although devastating to us, was nothing as compared to other companies.
The Hard Painful Lessons We Learned:
- Exporting and importing herbs is risky business. You need an experienced broker to make sure all paperwork is filled out properly. If you choose to not use a customs broker, you may have your shipments flagged for inspection more often. How the herb is classified on the customs paperwork is extremely important. The agents that investigated my shipment were not sure how Moringa should be classified: food, herb, or supplement. They were not familiar with it.
- If your shipment is contaminated, it is very difficult or impossible to get your money back on a shipment sent from a foreign country. I went through that process as well. You might as well consider your money lost, if there are problems.
- Any shipment can be held. Not all shipments are tested. If the paperwork and the product label are compliant, they may pass it through without a hitch. Shipments are tested randomly. If they do flag it, you are in for a time consuming and expensive ride without knowing the outcome.
- Organic Certified from India does not mean it is safe to eat. Organic certified can still contain dirt, filth, weeds, mouse parts, insects, E-coli, mold, and other contamination.
- Only lab tests can identify E-coli, mold, bacteria and other contamination in products.
- Labs in India have not passed tests by FDA inspectors on their drug production. Herb production gets less scrutiny. So tested in India labs is not reliable.
- US labs though not perfect are more acceptable to test and package product.
In the beginning of our business, I tried to buy Moringa three different times from India: one Indian company did not give me professional invoices; one who never sent the product and was using a fraudulent organic certificate; and one company whose organic certified product was seriously contaminated.
The company who took my money the first time, two years later again tried to sell me fraudulent product with new stolen documents. He may still be in business, selling products with a fraudulent organic certificate.
Conclusion: I will not deal with Indian companies or their Moringa products. Now several years later, we sell an excellent organic Moringa product grown on an organic farm in Ecuador, tested and packaged in a US-GMP compliant lab in Connecticut. The road to get there was long and filled with pits.
Kate Freer. Master Herbalist, Medical Researcher, and Freelance Writer
Moringa and Healing Herbs
http://herbladyisintoday.blogspot.com (Growing and Using Moringa and Healing Herbs)
herbladyisin.blogspot.com (Alternative Medicine In the News Blog)
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