Primary processing – drying, cutting, sifting and storing freshly harvested medicinal plants – is the step that makes or breaks quality. Because these steps typically happens in the country of origin, parts of the world with less rigorous quality control standards and fewer resources for developing drying and storage facilities, this is also the stage where most things go wrong. Josef Brinckmann said that most buyers who have visited their suppliers (it is amazing how many buyers have not done so) know that the best way to retain the quality of the raw material is to transport it out of the country of origin as soon as possible.
Most medicinal plants on the international market are handled by production facilities in the countries of origin, called primary producers or processors. These in-country companies typically source directly from farmers or farmer cooperatives and wild plant collectors. In some cases, finished product companies buy directly from these primary producers. In other cases, a larger company, say Martin Bauer Group of Germany, handles the logistics of orders/transportation, storage, and a round of quality control testing (finished product companies will repeat many of these tests for their own assurance and as required per regulations in their country). Finished product companies committed to developing longterm relationships with their suppliers may insist as part of their contract that they can have direct relations with the primary processor. This way they can do site visits to fields and collection sites, develop relationships on individuals at the processing company, and have a direct say in maintaining the quality of the plants from the point of origin through the whole supply chain.
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Steps and Issues in Primary Processing
Watch the video above to best understand processing herbs – not just the technical information but the actual experience of what is involved. As someone for whom ‘processing herbs’ meant chopping freshly dug Echinacea root and mixing it with Vodka in a mason jar, this level of the supply chain was perhaps the most surprising. The noise, the dust, the machinery, the huge amounts of herbs. It seemed impossible that anyone was keeping track of which herbs were in the machines at any point in time or as importantly, was overseeing quality and cleanliness of the whole process. As I learned more, I came to see what buyers look for in deciding whether or not to source from particular companies. There are ways of keeping track and of keeping things clean. Among other things, it involves a keen attention to detail and scrupulous record keeping. Below are some of the steps and what to look for. But again, the best way to understand this step is to watch the video above.
Labeling: In the certified chain of the industry, primary producers typically have contracts with farmers that have been placed in advance. They have different ways of purchasing wild collected plants, sometimes these purchases are handled through collection sites that are organized by the processing facility. Other times the primary processor may buy directly from wild collectors who bring herbs they have collected by just to see if the company is interested. Most times, companies do a bit of each. These herbs may be fresh or dried. For certified herbs, correct labeling is crucial to ensure traceability. Labels must include the name of farmer or collector, date of harvest, amount harvested, and area from which the material was harvested. The primary producer is responsible for proper labeling.
Drying – Drying is one of the most challenging steps in the entire supply chain. The constituents quickly degrade after the plant has been harvested, so the closer drying facilities are to the fields and collection sites, the better. I visited a number of driers built within a kilometer of the fields, ranging from rudimentary but very effective set-ups for drying under shade cloth (mostly in rural India), to very elaborate driers able to dry huge quantities of medicinal plants from fields in Germany. Wild collectors typically dry the harvested plants in their own homes and later bring the dried plants to collection facilities for storage. The bags of herbs are then shipped to processing facilities for the next stages of production
Storage – These herbs are then stored at the primary processing facility until the time for processing and fulfilling orders from manufacturing or finished product companies. Herbs should be stored in clean bags so they aren’t exposed to fluctuations in humidity. I visited a huge range of storage facilities – from incredibly organized facilities to those where dried herbs were in huge piles or opened bags on low shelves close to the ground. Cats slept on some of the piles and exposed beams covered in grime were above. Moisture is the biggest challenge in storage. Storage areas must be set at a controlled temperature, less than 70% moisture (correct?) and around 25 degrees C. Companies should have insect controls inside buildings and rodent control outside. Cultivated herbs are a problem because if there are larvae, the company won’t be able to sell the herbs.
Converted tobacco driers used for drying medicinal herbs in Hungary.
Cutting and Sifting –Once an order is ready to be processed, raw material from different collectors and different fields is mixed together to form larger lots to be cut according to the specifications agreed to in the sample when the order was placed. The primary processing company is responsible for keeping track of which herbs go into these lots in order to ensure traceability for certification. This means that if any quality control problems arise further down the supply chain, the company knows which fields and/or collectors are potentially responsible and can take steps to prevent those problems in the future.
Cleanliness – Simple things like washing hands and providing collectors and growers with clean storage sacks are key in preventing contamination. Other things like cleanliness of the facility, drying racks, washing rooms, etc. are also key to preventing adulteration and microbiological contamination.
Terms of payment –Processing facilities have to pay collectors on the spot. Yet these companies don’t get paid for the herbs until after the buyer places receives the shipment, which can be months after the primary processor has purchased the raw material. Depending on the buyer, the processing facility still might not get paid for 3 months, sometimes longer. These companies bear the greatest financial risk in the whole supply chain. I asked Anna Charytoniuk, in charge of International Sales for Runo, a primary processing facility in Poland, what made a good company. “One that pays on time,” she replied, with no hesitation.
For a primary processing company to succeed, the key is to keep overall costs as low as possible by having really good systems in place so they are as efficient as possible.