Editorial: Help Wanted: Resourceful Leaders and Movers

By Len Monheit

The pressure and attention continues.

Headline after headline infers either serious product quality or efficacy concerns. Mainstream news speaks about food contamination, industry dithers over whose responsibility it should be to ensure ingredients are tested, and a good part of the community stands squarely on its inertia and says – ‘wait for GMPs’.

On the science side, despite periodic industry challenges, reports of neutral to negative studies are appearing with regularity. Editorial too, seems to be ramping up about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of supplements and functional ingredients, recycling actual or interpreted conclusions liberally. And of course challenges don’t receive the same headlines as do the original results.

This can’t be good for business, both for those that are actively engaged in the industry, or for those who just cash a check from time to time.

All this attention can only add to consumer confusion and hesitancy, making it more than a bit of an industry conundrum. The part that I cannot understand is those that persist in ‘do nothing’. Maybe I’m just a bit over-connected to news and headlines, but it seems to me that a breaking-point must soon be reached.

To begin with, the apparent lack of alteration of buying practices on any significant scale is a bit disconcerting. True, maybe we just need to have the fallout of the current crisis reach the ingredient buying cycle. Or maybe, behind the scenes, new charts of supplier expectations are actually being drafted, and the proposed SIDI system is being embraced. Maybe companies are investing dollars in analytical method development and validation so that the identification of adulterants and impurities can be the high priority it needs to be.

On the subject of engagement, maybe companies are aggressively ringing up trade associations, inquiring about membership details, lobbying positions and quality initiatives. (I’d be interested in finding out whether the current crisis has generated an upswing. One would certainly think so as companies truly concerned about the mid to long-term future would recognize that the capabilities of the right trade association magnify those of member companies significantly.)

As far as the science is concerned, we continue, in large part, to be challenged by the fact that it is very difficult (and expensive) to prove the long-term benefits of many products, especially when much of the information comes from secondary end-points and study considerations, or from patient questionnaires or anecdotal evidence. In light of all this neutral to negative evidence, what does this do to the research budgets, from both government and industry sources? Ironically, despite these discouraging times, a refocusing on science is now not an option, but a ‘must’ proposition. The negative studies, if anything, will increase (sort of like sharks with blood in the water). Doing nothing on industry’s part only means that the science ‘deficit’ increases, so thoughtful, collaborative research must be increased, and category based research must be actively and enthusiastically supported.

“When the world is against you, make new friends.”

Now is a good time for an active outreach program. I know several groups are working on relationships with legislators and regulators and this is an excellent component of an outreach program, an initiative that should be formally expanded to include any organization that can even be partly aligned with industry’s public health enhancement initiatives. Those readers of this column will remember that I have long advocated a sports community outreach program in which issue communication, product testing and certification all play key roles. There are other communities that we should, as an industry, be aligning with and exchanging views, information, relationships and communication channels.

And speaking of communications, with the forces and resources arrayed against us, a lack of information dissemination, like that in the science equation, automatically creates a deficit, one that must be at least partially countered by outbound communication, and a significant industry investment in the process. In this area, the efforts of the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance (DSEA) currently fund-raising for its ‘Just Like Me’ media campaign, should be enthusiastically supported.

Underlying all of these efforts must be a sense of responsibility – to consumers, value chain partners, legislators and the rest of the industry. And this sense of responsibility must be made evident in all of our outward-facing actions. Whether it’s called self-regulating, self-policing or self-administering, it must be at the core of our endeavors. Gone are the days when we, as an industry, can just say, they’re not part of us, and expect to be considered differently. It’s now incumbent for us to show by differentiation that they are not part of us. This can be done one of two ways, showing what good companies do better, or by showing what bad companies don’t do or do worse. I suggest that both are now required.

None of these elements stand alone. A company cannot just say, “We’ll only do the outreach” or “We’re going to focus on policing.” All these issues are inter-related and therein lies the complexity of our current environment. Changing the current paradigm can only be accomplished by increasing the resources available – and that includes the number of people vested enough in the future to be willing to do something about it.

The pitch – “Leaders and movers wanted”.

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