Last week, the Natural Products Association (NPA) and Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) invited me to speak to the Dietary Supplement Congressional Caucus (DSCC). They asked me to present a classic NBJ-style overview while attempting to demystify the dietary supplement industry for a group of congressional staffers, lobbyists and D.C. insiders representing both sides of the regulatory debate.
I’m a business analyst at heart, not a politico, so the experience was quite fun for me, and I was honored to be asked to do what NBJ does best—get to the bottom line of critical industry issues and present unbiased, insightful market intel.
The talk went well, and along the way, a few things struck me about the experience.
1. Congressional staffers need to know how to become experts on just about everything when the time calls for it. What a challenge! No wonder the average age of the staffers appeared to be about 25. It must take a lot of energy to constantly climb that learning curve to a height at which you can deliver accurate intelligence to a Senator or Representative in a way that drives to the best policy position. Dutifully tracking the business of the nutrition industry seems downright simplistic in comparison—four product categories and six sales channels.
2. Congressional staffers must burn out. My guess is that the average tenure of a congressional staffer is less than 5 years. But with such high turnover, there is little chance the average legislator’s knowledge of dietary supplements is sufficiently broad or deep. I can only imagine the challenge faced by legislators to identify with subtlety and nuance the more complex issues facing our industry, the same issues I see CEOs struggle to understand every day.
3. So who can help them move up the learning curve? The work that NPA and CRN do on behalf of the supplement industry is paramount. The United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) and the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) also do incredible work and add to the conversation in very unique and vital ways. If your business touches the supplement industry, consider your NPA, CRN, UNPA and AHPA membership dues an insurance premium on your revenue stream. If you’re not a member of one or more of these associations, for the good of your business, rethink that decision.
4. Supplement industry executives must reach out and get to know the Senators and Representatives that represent them in D.C. At the 2009 NBJ Summit, we asked the attendees if they had met with either their Senators or Representatives. Only 15% raised their hands. Not enough. Only by showing that the industry cares what goes on in D.C. will our Congressional representatives and advocates care as well.
5. The dietary supplement industry’s best defense of its interests will be collaborative, not combative. Unnecessary fear-mongering among consumers does not win points with D.C. legislators. Smart money flows to the industry associations that support this collaborative, non-combative approach. Follow the smart money.
Whether or not the supplement industry is at a true inflection point remains debatable. Certainly there are a number of issues on the table that could have significant influence on the future of this industry, and we all—publishers, CEOs and Congressional staffers, alike—need to pay close attention. No one wants to wake up one morning and learn how the implementation of new dietary ingredient guidance just eliminated 50% of their products from store shelves.
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