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Keep Abreast of Product Quality

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Keep Abreast of Product Quality

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser


The pressure is always on naturals retailers from customers who want to know which products work and which are reliably made. Staff members—particularly new ones—may be flummoxed in their quest to understand what's what, but there are plenty of tools available to retailers looking for information on which products to carry and how to help customers make wise and appropriate buying decisions.

Here's a review of some basic strategies for sleuthing out quality products and training your staff to do the same.

Define Quality
Quality is subjective, so identifying what is important is a necessary first step. "You may define quality as consistency—which is very important for clinical trials—but that is different from quality as organic, or quality as sustainable, or quality as homemade," says Steven Dentali, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and technical affairs at the Silver Spring, Md.-based American Herbal Products Association. "Quality becomes objective when you establish what your quality standards are."

For most retailers, quality encompasses source material standards, good manufacturing practices, label accuracy and product efficacy.

Neil Reay, director of sales and marketing for the U.S. Pharmacopoeia's Dietary Supplements Verification Program, says there are numerous factors that affect the quality of a supplement: "The ingredients that are used; the testing and screening to approve them when they come into the plant; the manufacturing process; the end-process testing." The ultimate test, he says, is whether the product dissolves in the consumer's body.

In their definition of quality, some retailers may include local production, environmentally friendly products or products with applications steeped in tradition.

Once you've defined what you're looking for, it's time to talk.

Relationships Matter
The primary way to find out what you need to know about a product is to talk to manufacturers and suppliers. Phillip W. Harvey, Ph.D., chief science officer and director of science and quality assurance at the National Nutritional Foods Association, recommends asking if the company is an NNFA member, if the products are made in a facility certified for good manufacturing practices, and if the products meets USP standards.

"I would definitely encourage asking as many questions as one needs to be satisfied in understanding what these ingredients do and where they come from," Harvey says. "A good, reputable company should be able to provide answers to any question the retailer has at any level—technical to basic stuff."

Harvey suggests tapping the expertise of other retailers. He also urges retailers to talk to dietitians, pharmacists and physicians for recommendations and answers to technical questions.

Trade shows and seminars are valuable sources of information and also are great opportunities for retailers to meet the people who can answer their questions. "[Retailers] can ask umpteen questions about specific ingredients and formulations. They can talk to the company president and the technical people," Harvey says, adding, "Trade shows can be very helpful for learning about new products, [and] there are usually a lot of good educational seminars."

Often after a trade show or seminar you'll be buried in literature. This is a good thing.

Be A Bookworm
Keeping up with your reading may seem daunting, but it is important. Company literature, scientific literature and trade magazines are useful sources of information about what works and how. Reading keeps you up to date on new products and applications as well as on research. For help sorting through scientific research, don't hesitate to consult your reps. They should be happy to highlight relevant points or provide research summaries. (For advice on evaluating research, see "Research: An Unsung Member of the Sales Team.")

The various trade organizations and publications do a good job of presenting new research. "It just depends on what level one wants to delve in," Harvey says, recommending scientific literature, peer-reviewed journals, trade magazines, third-party literature, books and reputable Web sites as sources for current information. This data can help you determine what products you can believe in and confidently recommend to customers.

Know Your Resources
Many trade associations and nonprofit groups, beyond offering synopses of current research, monographs, codes of ethics, education seminars and other relevant industry information, also have validation programs. These vary in scope, but third-party certifications can be helpful in determining which products are of the highest quality.

To name a few: NNFA offers the TruLabel program; USP has the Dietary Supplements Validation Program; and NSF International in Ann Arbor, Mich., offers its Certification Mark. However, you'll have to do some research to understand the differences between the programs because one organization's seal of approval can mean something completely different from another's.

"Retailers need to understand what the certifications stand for," USP's Reay says. "Many of them only mean that they have met a good manufacturing practices audit. The DSVP is a more comprehensive program that also includes product testing, process review, document review and continued postmarket surveillance. Once we certify a product, we test it for three more years to be sure it is maintaining its integrity and its consistency."

NNFA's TruLabel program is just a registration, Harvey says. "What we're doing is testing to verify that the product meets its purported label claim, but we don't certify the product."

Harvey says the proliferation of certification programs is meeting a consumer need for reassurance that products are of high quality. Retailers can use this information in making purchasing decisions. Point-of-purchase signs and brochures can help customers differentiate between the seals.

Beware Of Hyperbole
When searching for quality products to carry, or weeding out suspicious-sounding ones, watch out for extreme claims. If a manufacturer wants you to carry its newest "miracle" product, ask for copies of its research or information on the product's traditional uses. You've heard it before, but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Be A Detective
Dietary supplements are a diverse market. There is no single source for the scoop on which products work and are ethically or reliably made. "There's no one way to do this," AHPA's Dentali says. "This is not a homogenous product segment. The range of materials out there is extremely varied and there's a broad selection." Perhaps the best approach is to develop your depth of knowledge with patience and an open mind.

Dena Nishek is a freelance writer and editor in Boulder, Colo.

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