Private label brands are growing six times faster than national brands. With stats like that, it's easy to have dollar signs cloud your eyes. Easy money, anyone? But let's face it: More often than not natural products retailers got into the game for more than the bottom line. These stores started with idealistic missions focused on health and product quality. In fact, time and again I hear stories about retailers getting into the business after they lost trust in conventional health care or conventional food production. They were seeking change not only for themselves but also for their communities.
Therein is the challenge. Hiring a private-label manufacturer to produce supplements (or foods for that matter) that don your store name is a huge leap of faith. You, retailers, put your trust in an outsider and their processes. Sure, you can think that the newly enacted good manufacturing practices guarantee product quality, but do they?
I'm beginning to believe that those rules are just a starting point. A few weeks ago I attended a talk by Mitch Coven, a clinical herbalist and president of Vitality Works, a private-label contractor and manufacturer of botanical, herbal and homeopathic supplements. Although Coven has his biases as a private-label manufacturer, he also seems to have incredibly high standards for quality. Here are his tips to help retailers make sure that they're providing high-quality herbal products to customers (and these could apply to any brand, private label or not):
Ask for third-party certification. This process and documentation from the manufacturer, harvester and/or wildcrafter—which you should get your hands on—confirms that the company's processes were audited at least to be compliant with GMPs. "That's ensuring you're following the FDA's version of quality control," said Coven. "But quality can go significantly beyond that."
Ask for the source of raw materials. Where did the supply come from, and is this the safest place to source these goods? For example, in some countries the water may be polluted with E. coli, so when the herb is washed, the herb could get contaminated. Or heavy metals and lead in the soil may be of concern.
Ask for the form of herb. Does the manufacturer purchase whole botanicals that it then makes into powder? As an example, the FDA requires testing for polysaccharides in a powder source of reishi mushrooms, but many plants other than reishi have polysaccharides, according to Coven. Therefore, the powder could conceivably match the polysaccharide content of reishi and still be something other than reishi. But if a company gets the whole botanical for processing, the staff can verify that the herb is what it claims to be.
Ask about the harvest procedure. Does the manufacturer buy botanicals close to the harvest date? Does the company differentiate between what botanicals need to be freshly produced versus dried? Some botanicals need to be aged a year, according to Coven, whereas others are efficacious only when fresh.
Ask about ethics and social responsibility. What relationships does the company have with growers? Does the company buy directly from the farmer? According to recent research, 75 percent of consumers believe social responsibility is important and most choose products accordingly.
Ask about certification. Are the botanicals certified organic? Get proof in writing.