DNA analysis has found traditional Chinese medicines, which are available in New Zealand, may contain endangered animal species, allergens and potentially toxic ingredients.
Researchers at Murdoch University in Australia used new DNA sequencing technology in a study of 15 samples, seized by Australian border officials, to reveal the animal and plant composition of traditional Chinese medicines in the form of powders, tablets, capsules, flakes, and herbal teas.
Dr Michael Bunce, who led the study, said 68 different "plant families" were found in the medicines and that they were a "complex mixtures of species".
"Some of the traditional Chinese medicines contained plants of the genus Ephedra and Asarum," he said.
"These plants contain chemicals that can be toxic if the wrong dosage is taken, but none of them actually listed concentrations on the packaging.
"We also found traces from trade restricted animals that are classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, including the Asiatic black bear and Saiga antelope."
Professor Sean Holt of Victoria University said these products are available in New Zealand.
And he said despite a lack of knowledge about these products, they are becoming increasingly popular.
Holt said there is no quality control, and what the ingredient list says is completely different to what is actually contained in the product.
"Sometimes you just don't know what's in there. There can be dozens of things in there and some of them could be dangerous heavy metals like mercury or even arsenic."
Some products that are labelled as traditional Chinese medicine contain straight pharmaceutical drugs, Holt said.
He said one Chinese erectile dysfunction product was found to be straight pharmaceutical Viagra.
Bunce said another concern is the mislabelling of the Chinese medicines, meaning consumers are unaware of the presence of some ingredients, including animal DNA and potential allergens such as soy or nuts.
"A product labelled as 100% Saiga antelope contained considerable quantities of goat and sheep DNA," Bunce said.
"Another product, Mongnan Tianbao pills, contained deer and cow DNA, the latter of which may violate some religious or cultural strictures."
He said incorrect labelling makes it difficult to enforce legislation and to prosecute cases of illegal trade.
"It is hoped that this new approach to genetically audit medicinal products will bring about a new level of regulation to the area of complementary and alternative medicine," Bunce said.
PhD student Megan Coghlan, who was involved in the research, said the samples contained DNA from animals listed as trade-restricted according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Legislation and are not legal.
- With Newstalk ZB