The international image of ginseng as a health supplement has been tainted this week, as the findings of a July report by US group Consumerlab were made public. The report concluded that 60% of the ginseng products it tested failed to pass the company’s quality tests, and that 77% of these were exported from Korea. These were, it reveals, contaminated with lead and pesticides.

US$84m worth of ginseng was exported from Korea during 1999, US$4.8m of which was sold on the US market. The products were tested on the amounts of three elements present; pesticides, heavy metals and ginsenoside, the plant chemical believed to determine the effectiveness of the herbal root, renowned for its qualities of curing diabetes, impotence, and in relieving stress.

A director at the Korean Ginseng Products Manufacturers’ Association (KGPMA), Bae Nam-soon was concerned about the damaging effects of the report and commented that the KGPMA were working to verify the authenticity of the test results. He added: “At the moment, we believe that the ‘Korean ginseng’ mentioned by Consumerlab was not necessarily produced in Korea.” Because the association enforces such strict quality standards, he believes that producers in other countries use the label “Korean ginseng” to increase sales.

Kim Hong-shin, of the opposition Grand National Party, does not believe that this is a decent answer however. “Merely repeating that the tested ginseng was probably not Korean,” is only prolonging the damage, he stressed, with the Korean industry suffering in the eyes of US consumers.