As Congress mulled legislation aimed at protecting access to dietary supplements in 1994, retailers from California to New York took bold steps to show consumers what was at stake.
They draped black netting over their supplements sections, posted signs that read "You cannot buy these products" and told customers they should urge lawmakers to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) to avoid a future that limited product availability.
“It vividly drove home the point to consumers that the stakes were very high and helped drive, I believe, the largest grassroots response at the time to any issue in Congress,” recalls Jay Jacobowitz, president of Brattleboro, Vt.-based consulting firm Retail Insights. “DSHEA passed by unanimous consent as a direct result.”
Fast forward to 2012 and natural products retailers remain critical shapers of public policy, weighing in on everything from food safety issues to environmental and public health campaigns.
Recent retailer-driven efforts to keep plastic bags out of landfills and to require labeling on foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have sparked a slew of historic initiatives.
Meanwhile, the battle to preserve access to supplements is far from over, with proposed guidelines on New Dietary Ingredients (NDIs) prompting a new wave of activism via social media.
“Retailers are the key to effective grassroots advocacy,” says Dave Reczek, president of Chicago-based Fruitful Yield Health Foods. “If we are not vigilant, our mission to empower people to lead healthier lives can be threatened.”
1. GMO labeling
By far the hottest policy issue of 2012 is the fate of GMOs, with retailers mobilizing behind laws in seven states that would either restrict planting of genetically engineered crops or require labeling of GE foods. At the national level, a record-breaking 1.2 million people signed a petition this spring urging the Food and Drug Administration to require labeling.
And come November, all eyes will be on California, where residents will vote on the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act—the first statewide initiative to require labeling of anything that “is or may have been entirely or partially produced” with genetic engineering. (It also prohibits such food from being labeled natural.)
“This is probably the major showdown in our lifetime,” says Mark Squire, longtime owner and manager of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, Calif. “If Californians insist that our food be labeled, other states will follow suit.”
Since entering the industry in 1968, Squire has seen activism as a natural extension of “good customer service.” This ethos led him to help found the Non-GMO Project, and in 2004, to personally author Measure B, the Marin County, Calif., initiative that prohibited the outdoor cultivation of GMOs within the county.
Since then, Squire has stopped carrying products suspected of containing GMOs, put up shelf tags promoting those certified by the Non-GMO Project, held lectures and trained staff on how to talk to consumers about the issue. “We have prospered by playing an activist role,” he says. “Our customers realize we are looking out for their health.”
Mo George-Payette, COO of Mother’s Market and Kitchen in Orange County, Calif., says she doesn’t see the retailer as “deep into politics.” Rather, it is “trying to provide the best-quality food for our customers.” That means ensuring customers know what’s in their food.
So when local activists started trying to get the California labeling issue on the ballot, Mother’s jumped in enthusiastically, collecting “thousands of signatures” at its seven stores.
“We are founded on the values of truth, beauty and goodness. That is our mantra, and we feel this fits into that.”
PCC Natural Markets in Seattle uses its monthly newspaper, The Sound Consumer; its email newsletter, PCC Advocates; and its Facebook page to update thousands of customers daily on food policy initiatives.
In recent months, the co-op has sent out email blasts urging recipients to speak out on issues such as a federal bill that would improve the living conditions of hens, a petition asking for the suspension of a pesticide believed to harm honeybees, and a proposed mine that would sit at the headwaters of an important salmon habitat.
When state lawmakers gave just six days notice for a hearing on a GMO labeling initiative in January, PCC went so far as to charter a bus to carry its customers to Olympia, Wash., to show their support. “When something important is happening, we are able to dispatch information pretty quickly,” says spokeswoman Eli Penberthy. “We packed the capitol.”
But the retail community is far from unified on the GMO labeling issue. The Natural Products Association (NPA), as of press time, had yet to come out for or against the California labeling initiative. The American Herbal Products Association supports labeling of products “intentionally produced” using GMOs, but fears that broader laws could place an “undue burden” on manufacturers, which—because of pollen drift and other contamination—have a hard time ensuring their products are GMO free.
“We choose to focus on issues that threaten our mission, and we stay away from ones that have unintended consequences,” says Chicago retailer Reczek. “For example, we support the Non-GMO Project, but mandatory GMO labeling laws are a new opportunity for bounty hunters who will launch litigation against the industry.”
2. Preserving supplement access
Instead, Reczek focuses on preserving access to supplements, which he sees as imminently threatened by “unnecessary government interference.” Walk through his stores and you’ll find shelf talkers that read "Action Alert: Your access to this trusted product may be restricted and refer shoppers to websites for more information about NDIs."
He’s also constantly educating his staff, consumers and lawmakers about proposals he believes could chip away at the historic 1994 legislation that separated regulatory framework for dietary supplements from drugs and food additives. “The fight to defend DSHEA continues to this day,” Reczek says.
The draft NDI guidelines—submitted in July 2011 and now under revision—would significantly boost the level of safety data manufacturers must submit to the FDA before bringing a new ingredient to market. The guidelines may also require some existing products, previously believed to be grandfathered in, to jump through these same hoops.
“Products would be slower to come to market and be a lot more expensive, and many products that are already on the shelves could be pulled while the manufacturer submits a new NDI,” says Cara Welch, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the NPA.
Liz Hurst, NPA’s government relations manager, notes that retailers are keeping their eyes on more than just NDIs. In May, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced an eleventh-hour amendment that would have required manufacturers to register all products and their ingredients with the FDA within 30 days of introduction, reformulation or discontinuation.
Within hours, news of the amendment popped up on retailer Facebook pages and email newsletters. NPA alone counted more than 2,000 messages sent to members’ senators via its website. The amendment was tabled by a 77-to-20 vote. But advocates agree that this piece of legislation—or something like it—will return.
“Issues affecting dietary supplements stay fresh in the minds of legislators, and we have to be constantly ready to respond,” Hurst says. “We reach out to our retailers as a direct conduit to consumers.”
3. Protecting the environment
Retailers are also playing a leading role in the battle against plastic bags, says Andy Keller, president of the Reusable Bag Association and ChicoBag, a Chico, Calif.-based reusable grocery bag, pack and tote manufacturer.
In the mid-2000s, retailers were the first to offer rebates and raffle tickets to customers who brought their own shopping bags. Others gave away reusable bags like loyalty cards. Before long, some retailers, including Squire at Good Earth Natural Foods, began working with lawmakers to craft local plastic bag bans.
Today, 76 counties and municipalities—including Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco—have passed similar legislation. Honolulu County’s adoption of a ban makes Hawaii the first plastic bag-free state.
“The next big move will be a statewide law,” predicts Keller, noting that an initiative is already underway in California, with the support of many large retailers.
Retailers also can forward the cause by banning plastic bags in their stores, offering reusable bags or boxes instead, dressing up as a “bag monster” (ChicoBag has 100 bag monster costumes that it loans out to retailers for special events) and training their staffs to move away from the “paper or plastic?” question to “Do you need a bag?”
“If anyone is still asking the question ‘paper or plastic’ or, worse yet, not asking and just bagging, it is time to take a hard look at that,” Keller says.
Choosing your battles
So how can a small retailer on a tight budget take a stand without alienating customers? By choosing the right battles.
“It is important to draw a distinction between partisan campaigns and policy issues,” says Doug Walter, membership director of Davis Food Co-op in Davis, Calif. Founded in 1972, the co-op has a long-standing policy not to endorse specific political candidates or frame discussions in left-right terms.
As the GMO debate has unfolded, in a community where many members are employed by the biotech industry, the store has proceeded delicately, taking care to publish letters on both sides of the issue and not frame the debate in terms of whether GMOs are “savior or evil,” but rather in terms of labeling. “We have always been very supportive of legislation supporting the public’s right to know,” Walter says.
Nine-store chain PCC Natural Markets employs two full-time public affairs staff to track policy issues and communicate them to customers, takes guidance from its board of directors on which issues are worth taking a stand on and subjects its stances to “many layers of vetting” before making them public.
Most important, though, the co-op tries to be clear about why it is getting involved. “First and foremost, we think of ourselves as consumer advocates,” says Penberthy. “We are not here to represent the food industry. We are here to make sure our customers’ needs are being looked out for. As long as we are as transparent as possible, it never backfires.”