The government is considering measures that would effectively outlaw herbal medicine.
Such a move is likely to be welcomed by groups who campaign for evidence-based medicine. But others warned that prohibition could make it harder to regulate herbalists, by driving them underground.
The proposal came in a DoH consultation on plans to subject alternative medicine to professional regulation. Experts argue that this would offer cheaper and more effective protection of public safety than attempting to regulate individual remedies.
The consultation was expected to consider how to implement regulation. But instead it reopens the question of whether statutory regulation is the best way to ensure public safety.
It offers alternatives including abolishing section 12 (1) of the 1968 Medicines Act, which allows herbalists to practice.
Professor Michael Pitillo, principal of the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, who led a working group that fed into the consultation, said the move was a 'total surprise and entirely contrary to what steering group had been set up for'.
Questioning the evidence base for such remedies was reasonable, he said. 'But it is important to separate the need to demonstrate a treatment's effectiveness from the protection of the public.'
The DoH told GP it changed the substance of the consultation because 'the regulatory climate has changed considerably' since earlier consultations.
NHS Alliance chairman Dr Michael Dixon said that any move to regulate alternative medicines should be 'totally pragmatic'. 'The public are already seeing these practitioners,' he said. 'We need to be assured that they are safe and know what they are doing within the modality of those treatments.'
Some health professionals want a tougher stance on herbal medicines, however.
Professor David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London said: 'Every other form of drug is tested for safety and efficacy. These guys have a complete loophole.'
He said many herbal medicines came in unstandardised doses, and statutory regulation would offer patients false reassurance that treatments were safe or effective. He urged GPs to oppose it in the consultation, which runs until 2 November.