Editorial: Product Quality - Priority or Pain?

By Len Monheit

In the weeks leading up to Expo West, several colleagues and I held intensive discussions regarding the state of product testing programs in the industry, and the general state of consumer confusion that must exist. After all, from a mainstream public perspective, the communicator of information on product quality is Consumerlab.com, and if there’s one take away from that program, it’s the oft repeated mantra “You can’t trust what’s in the bottle”.

So if you can’t trust what’s in the bottle, and you’re on the edge of making a decision about whether or not to buy a supplement, what do you do? Well, you have several choices. You can ask your in-store representative (remember, you’re a mainstream consumer, so although you might be in a health food or Whole Foods store, you might very well be in a grocery store) and this could be a clerk, nutritionist or even pharmacist, you could buy the most recognizable brand on the shelf, you could go home and research online and magnify your confusion, you could get a subscription to Consumerlab.com and find out which brands passed – or you could just give up.

I’m not sure that anyone has specifically measured this consumer behavior, certainly not on an ongoing basis. How has consumer confusion impacted industry potential? How many sales have been lost because the consumer could not be converted in the store or didn’t see what they were looking for online – definitive quality information? From my own personal experience, at least once a week someone asks me “how do you know?” How do you know which one is good? How do you know which one works? And to answer that all are equal would be a grave misstep; one just has to look at the price differential to know that something is going on.

So these colleagues and I decided to see what we could put on industry’s radar in a late-scheduled seminar at Expo West.

We invited a prominent analytical chemist to help with placing the issue of product testing in context, talking about analytical challenges, and even the reality that products in the market deservedly fail common tests. We talked about what elements needed to be included in an industry-led program, the discussions about in-house analytical practices that needed to be understood before a common analytical method, for all matrices, could even be considered to be accepted as a measurement for testing products in the marketplace. We talked about the need for an effective consumer reach – so that the program had meaning in the marketplace as a whole.

In all, we had a healthy discussion, one that included expressions of frustrations from panelists and audience at the current state of affairs and its negative impact on the business of the industry. These individuals were not commenting on the appropriate representation of failing products, they were commenting on the misrepresentation of results (one company specifically noted that even when they were able to successfully challenge Consumerlab.com findings, a public retraction of the vocal announcements of the original failure did not occur).

Let me take a step back for a second.

The purpose of this column today was not specifically to talk and debate the practices of any business entity – much of that has been said before. Today, I wanted to note that this particular seminar was held at Expo West; in attendance were a couple media representatives, and several individuals from the analytical and ‘testing program’ community. Also in attendance were companies with combined annual net revenues of about a couple hundred million dollars, who by their actions (and the actions of their like-minded colleagues) could create an environment where product testing schemes, in addition to calling out poor product, would also support and build the sales of those high quality products we know are also out there – and lend credibility to the industry at the same time.

I must confess that I was disappointed at the relative lack of attendance at the seminar. I would like to attribute this to a busy show schedule, or to the event being a relatively late addition to the calendar, so that some might have missed it. I sincerely hope that the poor attendance level was not due to lack of interest, since that presumably would indicate a level of apathy or disinterest that does not bode well for industry taking responsibility for its own growth and destiny.

My thanks to Marc Ullman, James Neal-Kababick and Suzanne Shelton for their contributions, and also to those who did take time out of their busy show schedules – to both attend and participate.

It’s very easy to criticize the status quo. Far more challenging is to commit to the steps that might change it.

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