Before the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act passed Congress in 1994, natural products retailers were on the front lines of the fight to protect consumer access to supplements. Bill Crawford, who at the time worked at AKiN’s Natural Foods in Tulsa, Okla., recalls draping black mesh over products that might be stripped from store shelves if the government enacted the threats against supplements.
“With a trained staff and signage we generated a lot of interest and letters to Congress,” says Crawford, who now is director of retail publishing programs for Boulder, Colo.-based New Hope Natural Media. “We had staff with clipboards if folks only wanted to sign a petition, and we had letter writing stations for those who wanted to say a bit more. It was a very effective way to engage our shoppers.”
Fast forward to 2011 and today’s retailers are, I’m sorry to report, far less engaged in regulation and legislation on dietary supplements. You could argue that this is a natural progression. Because DSHEA is doing its job, rightful access to supplements is fairly well protected.
Or you could contend that retailers have gotten complacent. “I do worry that some just don’t recall how fragile things were back in 1994,” says John Gay, CEO and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Products Association. “We still always have people who want to overregulate us.”
Cases in point from the past year:
In June, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) introduced the Dietary Supplement Labeling Act, which would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to establish a definition for "conventional foods," increase warning language on supplement labels and require manufacturers to register dietary supplements with FDA. All the publicity around Lazy Cakes spawned this, according to Gay, but only the last paragraph of the bill addresses the important issue of separating conventional foods from dietary supplements. “It’s a broad bill of unneeded regulation,” he says.
- In July, FDA released New Dietary Ingredient draft guidance. This document indicates that if an ingredient wasn’t on the market in the same form as in October 1994, the manufacturer will need to submit a NDI notification with FDA. If you change an existing mix of ingredients—even a little bit—you have to file a NDI notification. If you change the recommended daily intake to follow the latest science, you have to file a NDI notification. And so on. “We’re talking about potentially thousands of products coming off the shelves to go through the NDI process and a chilling effect on innovation by greatly increasing the costs,” Gay said in last week’s NFM 2011 Market Overview Webinar. “And all of this does not provide any significant improvement in safety.”
When I called on retailers to share their thoughts about the NDI draft guidance a few weeks after FDA publication, more often than not, they were speechless. They didn’t know enough about the proposed regulation to offer their viewpoints.
I’m not surprised. Retailers like you are a busy lot. The day-to-day tasks of keeping shop leave little time for playing politics. But, trust me, it takes just a few minutes each day to get better informed and more involved with regulation and legislation that, like it or not, ultimately affects your livelihood. Here are four easy ways to get started.
Join a trade association.
Only about 4 percent of U.S. independent and specialty natural products stores are members of the NPA or the Minneapolis-based Independent Natural Food Retailers Association. But these groups can take a powerful stand against—or for—pending regulation. “FDA traditionally has given tremendous weight to what the trade associations say since they speak for hundreds or thousands of companies in the industry,” Gay says.
Once a member, register for NPA’s Action Alerts to receive email notices when it’s time to make a difference on an issue. Use INFRA’s member-only listserv to unite with other retailers for any necessary action. These are effective tools. Through communication on INFRA’s listserv, members educated one another on genetically modified organisms. As a result, they have collectively donated more than $55,000 to the Non-GMO Project, according to Dot Peck, director of programs for INFRA.
Contribute to and follow regulation discussions.
At regulations.gov, you can read proposed U.S. regulations, such as the draft guidance on NDIs or the suggested name change for high fructose corn syrup. Also, you can submit comments, read feedback from others and sign up for email alerts on specific rules.
When the natural products industry faces a challenge in Congress, consumer letters to representatives pack plenty of punch. “That type of activism has less weight with a regulatory agency, but it can definitely sway policymakers who have to face the voters,” says Gay, who explains that government agencies such as the FDA respond more to trade-association feedback than individual comments. To educate and engage your customers on pending legislation, be like Bill was and get creative with in-store signage, petitions and events.
Keep up-to-date on industry news.
Use NewHope360.com as your go-to resource for in-depth analysis of regulatory and legislative issues. Follow us on Twitter and friend us on Facebook, where we post links to our minute-by-minute industry news. Also, be sure to regularly check the websites of Washington, D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition and NPA for trade association reactions to natural products industry issues.