Executive Interview: Q&A with David Seckman, NNFA Executive Director/CEO

As the National Nutritional Foods Association celebrates its 70th anniversary, it is perhaps at its most relevant and effective point thus far. Under the experienced and tireless leadership of David Seckman, it has moved headquarters to Washington DC and greatly expanded its presence on Capitol Hill with undeniable impact on legislators, developed numerous successful advocacy programs, increased its financial stability, grown its membership to record levels, collaborated to launch NNFA Japan and NNFA China, fostered a closer working relationship with its natural allies, and developed an atmosphere of cooperation and trust among its members that had been missing. It is no surprise that David is receiving the Efforts of Behalf of Industry award from NBJ in July, although he gives all the credit to his staff and board. Whatever it is called, clearly NNFA will continue to have vision and relevance for the foreseeable future.

1) What are NNFA’s most important activities and roles as you see them at this point in time (May 2006) and in this market environment?
Advocacy on behalf of our members is and always will be one of our most important – if not the most important – activity. Certainly, with the number of bills in Congress right now that we either oppose or support there’s a need for constant vigilance. We’re also looking at better ways to serve our membership and provide them with the products and services of most value to them. To that end, our board recently approved changes to our committee structure so that we’re better able to represent and give a voice to all segments of our membership.

2) Your board of directors recently approved a revised mission statement and a new vision statement. Why the change?
It had been almost 10 years since the last update to the mission statement and the association wanted to ensure it was still relevant. The old statement described much of what NNFA does and continues to do, but it was nearly a full page in length. The new statement is concise and we think will be easier to recollect. At the same time we updated the mission statement, we decided to also create a vision statement. While the mission statement reflects who we are in the present, the vision statement captures where we would ideally like to be in the future.

3) The National Nutritional Foods Association membership will be voting on a name change in May. What is the new name and why the change?
NNFA’s board of directors feels that this is the right time to institute a name that reflects the breadth and depth of the association’s current and future membership: the Natural Products Association. While NNFA is the fourth name the association has had since its founding in 1936, it has been more than 35 years since the last name change. In that time, there have been sweeping changes to the natural products industry. And although NNFA’s members have kept pace with the times, the board feels the association’s name has not.

And the timing couldn’t be better. The association is in a position of strength, both fiscally and in membership numbers. Additionally, the name change and new mission and vision statements will coincide with our 70th anniversary, underscoring our ability to adapt and change with the times.

Those who want to read more about these changes can get information on our Web site at www.nnfa.org/natural.

4) Not everyone understands the way an industry’s relationship works with our elected officials, so would you explain the various interactions required and touch on the importance of campaign contributions in terms of keeping our allies in office and perhaps other kinds of support we should be providing, and why?
It’s simple. We want to support those elected officials who support our issues. There are a number of ways to do this. One is to directly support a candidate by volunteering or giving to his or her campaign. As is often reported in the news, it is becoming more and more expensive to stay in and run for office and candidates are investing more time and resources in fundraising than ever before. NNFA and other industry groups and companies have political action committees – PACs – that also support those running for office. In the course of a year a PAC like NNFA’s will support several candidates who support our issues.

5) NNFA seems to have become the industry’s primary Capitol Hill presence. How much contact do you personally have with members of Congress? How often are you on the Hill?
At least every week and sometimes several days in a week, either I or other NNFA D.C. staff members are on the Hill. There is the need for a constant and consistent education process about our issues so we need to continually meet with legislators and staff members. This is particularly important because there are several bills before Congress that concern the industry.

6) What role do your members play in the legislative process?
Our members are our clout. They are constituents themselves who in turn have access to other constituents through their businesses, particularly retailers. It’s really a numbers game and the more support or opposition to an issue that you can muster, the better your chance of influencing it. Our grassroots program, which gives our members and other stakeholders the tools they need to be effective advocates on industry issues, is a key part of our advocacy efforts.

7) There is currently some controversy about AERs. May we have your perspective?
There has been much speculation about a bill that would mandate adverse event reporting for dietary supplements, much of it ill informed. [Note: as of this writing, legislation concerning adverse event reporting for dietary supplements has yet to be introduced.] The fact is that the Senate is still drafting the bill with input from two of the industry’s biggest supporters in Congress, Sens. Tom Harkin and Orrin Hatch. Sens. Harkin and Hatch have been staunch defenders of this industry and I can assure you they would not be party to any legislation that would harm it. We have every reason to believe that the legislation that is introduced will be fair and contain important safeguards for both retailers and suppliers. As we in the industry know, there are very few adverse events associated with dietary supplements and even fewer associated with serious adverse experiences. I think a mandatory system of adverse event reporting system will provide incontrovertible proof that our products are safe.

8) It seems that in the last couple of years there has been increased fragmentation of the industry on some issues, such as Codex, AERs, Organic standards and food standards. What process does NNFA go through in determining the policies it adopts?
The disagreement on all these issues you mention is interpretation about how they will affect the industry and consumers. For instance, if we believed that some of the more outlandish claims about how Codex actions would affect the industry were true, fighting it would be our top priority. Our position is that, after careful analysis, we don’t believe the dire predictions that some have made will be the outcome. Likewise with the other issues. As far as the process, any official position that we adopt must first get approval by our board of directors and includes in-depth legal and financial scrutiny.

9) The sports nutrition category has been somewhat of a lightning rod for the industry. Does NNFA plan to address this issue?
NNFA and the other industry trade associations have been addressing the issues surrounding performance enhancing supplements for some time now. Recently, the biggest issue has been athletes who claim that they’ve tested positive for a banned substance because they unwittingly took a tainted dietary supplement. This innuendo, which is almost never accompanied by any proof, has hurt the industry. Adding to the problem are companies that have operated outside the law by illegally marketing drugs or steroids as dietary supplements. This has tarnished the legitimate industry.

To help combat these perceptions, NNFA has not only taken an active role with the press, but is currently developing a program that will make it easier for companies to prove that their products do not contain any unintended banned substances.

10) DHEA has been getting some negative attention from legislators. Is there a strategy or plan for managing the ongoing attack?
NNFA, along with the Coalition to Preserve DSHEA, has made defeating bills that would ban DHEA a top priority on two fronts. The first is by getting Congress the facts and disabusing them of the notion that DHEA is an anabolic steroid. We’ve found that many legislators we talk to simply don’t understand how DHEA works. One of our Congressional Champions, Sen. Tom Coburn, who is a physician, has published a very eloquent “dear colleague” letter to his fellow senators explaining that DHEA is not an anabolic steroid nor does it act like one. These letters can be very powerful and we’re hoping for a similar effort in the House. We’ve also activated our grassroots networks to contact legislators and get them facts about DHEA. And because DHEA is primarily used by older Americans, we’ve even partnered with a seniors group to get the word out.

11) With FDA resource cutbacks, there may well be even less effort to enforce DSHEA, which may lead to more stringent legislation. Is there anything we can and should be doing about this right now?
I think Senator Hatch addressed this point very well in your previous column when he advised the industry to “get involved” in educating Congress. This means attending events like our recent lobbying effort, Natural Foods Day, to allow legislators to see the responsible side of the industry. One activity the senator suggested is inviting legislators to stores or manufacturing facilities to see how the legitimate industry operates. We would also encourage industry members to communicate with Congress by participating in our grassroots network.

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