Editorial: Shrinking the Industry Education 'Gap'

By Len Monheit

Over recent years, we’ve watched as consumer appetites for information about our products has grown, as has that access to information – legitimate or not.

Surveys and trend indicators repeatedly note that our audience has an increasing desire for self-health management, uses any and all sources in order to make family and personal decisions regarding health choices, is increasingly looking for ‘healthier’ options, has been confused about health claims and the ‘real’ state of science and, in the supplements world, determining which products are good and which less so.

In two jurisdictions we follow quite closely, education is an actual part of the law or the guidance supporting the law – at least for supplements and Natural Health Products. In the United States, with DSHEA (Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act), the word ‘education’ is enshrined in the very name of the law. In Canada, education is a key part of the government’s obligation under that country’s Natural Health Products regulations. But just what does education really mean?

From the government’s perspective, the word likely means several things. First of all, it means the details, nuances and implications of the regulations – perhaps more importantly, what they are and what they are not. The word also encompasses what the category includes, how products are made and what they can and cannot do, and a good part of this last statement is further explored in the GMP rule recently promulgated by the US FDA. In Canada similarly, the regulations do encompass, at least in regulatory terms, both of the above statements.

Which brings up a question: Does the responsibility for education stop at government levels? Well, most certainly not, as a core element of responsibility for industry under DSHEA itself, was to embrace a mission of education, and some would argue, there is a parallel role and expectation of industry in Canada.

When one further examines the limitations afforded by health claims (no matter which side of the border you’re on), it becomes quite evident that we’ve got a delivery gap in our ability to provide the education that one would argue is expected by us. This is even further compounded by the overwhelming amount of information and disinformation out there and consumers’ ability to incorporate complex information into their personal health regimes.

Sounds like a dilemma.

Into this environment steps the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), an international group of some 40-plus member companies with a stake in the omega-3 category (food and supplements) which last week announced (http://www.npicenter.com/anm/templates/newsATemp.aspx?articleid=19675&zoneid=2) funding of a grant to Purdue University for the founding of the “International Omega-3 Learning and Education Consortium for Health and Medicine”.

According to GOED, the program will be responsible to reach out to educators, healthcare professionals (including veterinarians), consumers and the media with information on omega-3 fatty acids and how they are beneficial for health as well as the development of educational materials.

In recent years, there have been a couple of educational outreach efforts that have met with mixed success. This approach is novel. GOED has already continued and extended the original mission of omega-3 companies to establish and communicate minimum quality standards for the category, so the ‘backslide’ potential (two steps back for every step forward as another product or company gets slapped for poor product quality or substantiation) due to the presence of non-compliant companies and products has been somewhat mitigated. Secondly, the presence of this joint effort suggests a category-wide investment in science and education – a tide that floats all boats. It’ll be very interesting to watch the efforts of this consortium, which has already enlisted several prominent omega-3 research scientists to its cause.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see other categories follow suit. (Probiotics anyone?)

There will be those that challenge this initiative. There can be no denying that the accumulating body of science in this category makes it a likely candidate for category-sponsored education and hopefully research investment. It’s also one of those categories that straddles that line between food and supplements / natural health products. As such its target population is larger, media coverage is ramped up, and the potential tipping effect is magnified, especially if the group is able to engage and influence dietitians and nutritionists.

We’ll see what happens.

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