Editorial: Are We Reaching A 'Tipping Point'?

By Len Monheit



Each week, I sit down and conjure up something that passes for an editorial insight and view on the industry. This week is no exception, and here I am again, attempting to find a place to start.

In the past several months, I’ve described 2006 as the ‘year of wait and see’, where companies that might have aggressively launched products either didn’t, or did so on a less than sensational scale. I’ve since had this perspective confirmed several times over. Market uncertainty, regulatory challenges – these things all contribute to the general malaise, yet still we’ll find the industry tacked up its now typical 4-6% growth. There are few blockbusters. Sure omega-3s in all applications are going gangbusters and if you haven’t yet heard the term superfruits, you haven’t been following the industry, and more importantly, you haven’t ventured too far into the supermarket. There are areas where what we first knew as a supplement or natural health product of promise is now reaching a mainstream consumer, and with, in fact, a message attached. That the message is confusing and inconsistent is as significant for these emerging products and categories as it is for the historical industry leaders such as vitamins and minerals. It’s all tied together. And at the same time, it can all be positioned separately, - herbs distinct from vitamins, separated from minerals, separated from amino acids etc. Although not all surveys and polls specifically confirm this, it’s got to be one ‘confused consumer’ out there.

At a recent industry event, someone in the audience stood up and said, “what assurances can we have that the quality issues, challenges and concerns we talk about now will not be the same ones we talk about ten years from now? This individual was responding to the fact that ten to fifteen years ago, the same issues were dogging the heels of quality companies in this industry. Part of the answer is that without fundamental internal changes, not only are there no guarantees, there is every likelihood that the same questions will still be asked. Moreover, the same 65% of consumers who, except for vitamins, shy away from supplements and NHPs will continue to do so unless something changes. Yes, we truly need external enforcement, but we also need a stronger collective will to take charge of our industry. Yes, we need more science, but we also, as a collective, need more scruples.

I’ll get of the soapbox for a minute. Let’s take stock of a few ‘happenings’ in recent and upcoming weeks. The FTC has indicated that supplement surveillance remains a priority, especially for weight loss. In the same week, several new weight loss combination products are launched.

Much of the industry will be gathering at Expo West, SupplyExpo and Nutracon in a few weeks to discuss new products and opportunities, while at the same time, companies are visibly frustrated at regulatory inflexibility and a lack of opportunity for business gains if they have credible science and substantiated intellectual property. For every two steps forward in mainstream credibility (probiotics and omega3s typically leading the way), it’s three steps back with an FTC fine, or a Consumerlab.com report.

Personally I sense a collision course emerging and frustration brewing, as it reportedly did at Focus on the Future a couple weeks ago. Today and Tuesday I’ll be attending information sessions on Canada’s NHP regulations including product license status (currently 10,000 in backlog), describing the state of a regulatory environment that was supposed to effectively provide an opportunity for substantiated, efficacious products to reach the marketplace and for consumers to understand these products better. I realize these things take time, but one can certainly argue the case that product innovation has been stifled, and that perhaps this wonderful approach and strategy is flawed. More on this next week and as well, in my upcoming presentation at Nutracon on this subject March 8th.

Is this one of the collisions to anticipate? Is it on the issue of quality? Testing? IP? Investment? Science? Personally, I’m not sure exactly how it will manifest, but I sense a few gaskets ready to blow. I sense too (and I really hope I’m not wrong), a recommitment on the part of the smart, high quality operators to take back control of this industry.

So stay tuned. It’s going to get interesting. I know there are SupplyExpo and Nutracon seminars intended to develop and hopefully channel these opportunities. It would be terribly unfortunate if there was not enough interest, energy, will and commitment to not only let these issues reach the table at our industry events, but for once, to adhere into solid, non-compromised, actions plans to change current practices and the status quo. Maybe we find new food opportunities as well as a more vibrant supplement market. Maybe too, we find a few of our fellows sitting across the room suddenly can’t look us in the eye.

Whatever the case, one thing remains certain. Whether we trigger it ourselves, our circumstances, offerings and products are in the news frequently. Whether it’s a celebrity death, a mysterious powder in a high security building, an allegation regarding category quality or a new food guide for consumers, there is ongoing interest and to a certain extent, a magnifying glass, in and on what we do. It would presumably seem obvious that it is critical to choose very carefully exactly who you’ll be caught under the microscope with.

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