Consumers are very concerned about the origin of the supplements they take—and they vastly underestimate the percentage of ingredients coming from China, according to a consumer survey taken Nov. 16 and 17 by the United Natural Products Alliance.
"Because China is a significant part of the supply chain for our industry, it was important to get an understanding of consumers' perceptions with respect to country of origin," said Loren Israelsen, president of LDI Group Inc., a Salt Lake City-based industry consulting firm. "We became fascinated when we learned that a majority of the nutrients used in dietary supplements are manufactured in China—proteins, wheys, botanical extracts, vitamins."
The survey, based on a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 people, almost half of whom self-identified as regular supplements users, found that respondents believed that very few supplements came from China. Almost two-thirds would be less likely to purchase a product if they knew it was Chinese, but the negative perception of foreign products didn't end with China—40 percent of respondents said they'd be less likely to buy products from Japan, and 27 percent said the same about European products.
"The surprise finding was that it appears there's a negative afterglow for foreign products, generally," Israelsen said. "The data skewed very sharply by age—the older the respondent, the stronger the anti-foreign attitude. People are going into default mode: USA good, overseas bad. In the absence of being informed, consumers are making default judgments, but in the global food economy, it's a bad time to get xenophobic."
However, the spate of recent issues with Chinese products, from pet food to children's toys, has fed a growing anti-China sentiment among U.S. consumers, though China remains our largest trading partner for finished goods. Retailers are concerned as well, citing lack of information about product origin.
"Everyone wants to see a country-of-origin labeling law," said Wendy Stewart, assistant manager of Vitamin World in Palm Desert, Calif. The chain sells only its own branded products, but according to Stewart, little information on the products' sourcing is available at the retail level. "We manufacture our own vitamins, but when people ask me, I can't tell them where it comes from," she said. "I want to know both where it's manufactured and where the raw materials come from."
"As Americans, we're not even aware of the standards and hygiene in Third World countries like China," said a manager at Whole Foods Market in Gig Harbor, Wash. "I started getting concerned last summer, so I contacted our main distributor and asked them for a list of all food products coming from other countries, specifically China, which they were able to provide. If I owned a company, I'd want to use third-party verification for all raw materials coming from China, and not take somebody's word for it."
According to Israelsen, though, the problem is more complicated than a lack of quality control in Chinese manufacturing. A combination of price pressures, lack of oversight and testing of the supply chain by manufacturers, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's inability to test or inspect more than a small fraction of imports, all contribute to the recent problems with Chinese goods.
"Food safety is a local and a global issue, not a country-specific one," Israelsen said. "The message from our office is: How, not where. China has taken extraordinary measures to address criticism. They've heard it and taken it very seriously. They've amended their federal laws and assigned an army of people to food-safety issues." Israelsen said that some reports put the number of new safety inspectors in China at 200,000, compared with the total staff of 8,000 at FDA for both food and drugs—and only eight people at the agency working specifically on dietary supplements.
UNPA plans to do additional research to follow up on its initial survey results, and particularly to explore consumer response to foreign-made products.
Ultimately, the dietary supplements industry has to be responsible for policing the quality of its ingredients, Israelsen argued. "China is capable of world-class manufacturing; if we say we want the good stuff, they'll give us the good stuff," he said. "We should be testing, and sending stuff back [if it fails to meet quality benchmarks]. No amount of finger-pointing is satisfactory. We can't say it's FDA's fault, or we didn't know how to test it, or we used the wrong method, or the import broker said they tested it. The checklist of excuses is down to zero."
Though it may take time for consumer confidence in Chinese products to rebound, both Chinese manufacturers and U.S. importers seem to be getting the message that safety is always more important than price.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 9,12