Natural Foods Merchandiser

Loren Israelsen on natural products and the future of healthcare

Loren Israelsen, an attorney, is the executive director of the United Natural Products Alliance, a trade association of dietary supplements companies. Israelsen founded UNPA in 1991 with the mission to create a new legislative model for the regulation of dietary supplements. Since the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994, UNPA has worked closely with Congress, the U.S. Food and Drug Association and allied trade associations to assure implementation of DSHEA. He's been involved in the commercial and regulatory issues facing the global dietary supplements industry since 1982.

Q: What's happening with America's health care system and what's the role of the natural products industry?

A: I will make a prediction here. Within a few years, the current “health care system” will seize up, much as the financial markets just did. Why? It is run on the same principles–mindless investments that lead to nowhere, with greed and self-interest sloshing around, spending a bazillion dollars to treat an aging and obese society. So what is our message? It is to opt out of the system, just like getting off the energy grid. Our message is self-sufficiency, which is the enlightened application of health and wellness knowledge combined with really well-made supplements (and other good things, of course). Ask dedicated supplements users what really drives them. I think it is a deeply held belief that they really can guide and control their health destiny to a large degree. Taking that away freaks them out.

Q: What can retailers do to make consumers aware that a healthy lifestyle partnered with preventive care can help keep people out of the doctor's office?

A: If every retailer could go back in time and spend a few days in Mrs. Gooch's stores in L.A., with Sandy Gooch as their tour guide, and then take that vision back to their stores, we could change everything. Customers' devotion to Mrs. Gooch's stores was something I have never seen in my life, before or since. Her stores were an experience—including halogen lighting; parquet wood floors; beautiful racking and displays; gracious, efficient and highly informed staff; absolute product quality and integrity, education and seminar programs and valet parking. Valet parking! Sandy Gooch was the master of the retail experience. Happily for us, she chose organic foods. (See NFM's Natural Legacy profile of Gooch on page 28).

Our message is self-sufficiency, which is the enlightened application of health and wellness knowledge

Q: What do you foresee as the future of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act?

A: Well, the answer to that is, “How willing are we to defend DSHEA?” By this, I mean a personal defense of health freedom, which I define as an unabridged right of access to products and information. That is, simply put, what DSHEA was about. DSHEA was an elegant expression of the American populist tradition. The people spoke. The Congress finally got the message. In that respect, DSHEA is unique in the world today. There is simply nothing like it anywhere else.

But here is what I worry about: Our industry has matured. We have a lot of professional managers and not many revolutionaries, which doesn't pay nearly as well. Looking forward, the future of DSHEA will rest on two things: First, the next generation of Congressional champions to carry on the work of Sens. Orrin Hatch and Tom Harkin; and second, the next generation of industry revolutionaries who are young enough and bright enough to envision the next iteration of DSHEA in a digital world. I was intrigued by how the Obama campaign so effectively used technology in a political context. It will be intriguing to see if the age of petitions, phone calls, letters and marches on Washington is over for us.

Personally, I hope not, because something powerful happens when we use our voices and our feet—not just computer keyboards—to express beliefs.

Q: GlaxoSmithKline has filed a citizen's petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to have weight-loss claims considered disease claims, rather than health claims. Why did this happen, and what effect could this have on the dietary supplements industry?

A: Quite simply, GSK would like to own the weight-loss category with its product, alli. To do this, it needs to get rid of a major competitor—[the supplements industry]. This petition argues that weight-loss claims are really disease claims, and that means FDA approval would be required for any product that makes such claims. By “diseasifying” weight loss, you get to own the entire category if you are the maker of the only FDA-approved weight-loss product. Audacious? Yes. Will it work? I doubt it. What if this petition did succeed? It would be a knockout punch to the entire dietary supplements industry because this would greatly expand the definition of disease. That's good for pharmaceutical companies, but not for anyone else.

Q: What do you see happening in the industry on June 25, when the second phase of the FDA's good manufacturing practices for supplements is enacted?

A: I don't expect an Omaha Beach-wave of FDA inspectors doing inspections on June 25, 2009, when most of our industry is supposed to be GMP-compliant. The action is down in the trenches of the supply chain where our ingredients are made. The real problem is whether companies are willing to pay for high quality, not just talk about it. This business of spiking ingredients with chemicals to trick analytical tests is the melamine story, and we know how that story ended. The truth is that this is going on in our industry, and it must stop.

Q: Any thoughts on the Obama presidency and health?

A: Obama has turned on a dormant switch in many of us: the “imagine what is possible” switch. For the first time, our ideas about health, environment, corporate responsibility and personal responsibility seem to align with that of our leader. Can we get our act together fast enough to be a part of this renaissance? That's probably the question. I had a dream the night of the inauguration: I was suddenly in an elevator with President Obama (and a bunch of Secret Service guys). We shook hands. He asked if I had any suggestions for him. After putting my eyeballs back in their sockets, I gave him my best elevator speech, and with that he said, “I'm with it. Can you send me a one-pager that I can give to the secretary of health and human services? I want to make natural self-care a key part of our health-care reform plan. It was good to meet you.”

So, anyone want to help out on a one-pager?

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