Executive Interviews: Q&A with Tracy Taylor, Natural Products Association & Natural Products Foundation

Tracy Taylor has very quietly become one of the people having a significant impact on the natural products industry with the big picture programs that she is helping to design and execute. Her numerous concurrent hats include Senior Vice President of Public Affairs & Strategic Initiatives for the Natural Products Association, she oversees grassroots efforts for the Coalition to Preserve DSHEA, and most recently she has been named Executive Director for the Natural Products Foundation. Because the Foundation Board (of which I am a member) will finalize some new initiatives in early November, NPIcenter is, contrary to usual practice, running Tracy’s interview in two parts in order to begin the interview in part one, and then apprise the industry the foundation’s new initiatives as soon as they are announced in part two. Look for the second part following SupplySide West.

Tell us about the Coalition to Preserve DSHEA.

The Coalition, started in 2004, stemmed from concerns by our Congressional Champions, Senators Hatch and Harkin, that the industry needed additional educational efforts on the Hill regarding DSHEA. We really have a very focused mission: Defeat harmful legislation, support positive bills and cultivate a long-term base of support. We do this through our lobbying and grassroots efforts, which are really numbers games. The more people you have on the Hill getting your message out and the more constituents writing to their legislators, the more effective you are.

The Coalition engages a team of well-connected lobbying professionals who have access to members on both sides of the aisle. The Coalition has improved and expanded the opportunities for industry members and other supporters to make meaningful contact with their legislators to educate them about DSHEA and its ability to protect consumers and allow for appropriate enforcement.

A lot has changed since DSHEA was passed in 1994. More than 50 percent of those who currently hold office were not around back then. For staff, it’s closer to 85 percent. So many don’t understand what the bill does or the grassroots support that this issue can generate. The grassroots support for DSHEA back in 1994 was tremendous. Much of it was generated through health food stores who alerted their customers and who in turn contacted their legislators with letters, phone calls and faxes. Our opponents didn’t have a similar connection.
But with the advent of the Internet, we no longer have the same advantage. Some consumer groups, who have been outspoken critic of DSHEA, have extensive mailing lists through their publications that they can reach out to.

To ensure that we’re ready to activate dietary supplement consumers when a critical issue arises, we launched Save Our Supplements [www.saveoursupplements.org]. We’ve been able to build a strong database of consumers willing to take action on our behalf over the last few years. It’s a very committed group and has a high percentage of activists that follow-through on our requests.

We’ve really made a lot of progress. At one time many of the congressional offices that we went into, when you would mention DSHEA, a legislator or staffer would say “oh, yeah, that’s the bill that deregulated the industry.” Of course, the opposite is true. But while we’ve made progress, there’s a real continuing need to educate members of Congress about what DSHEA actually does.

Another thing the Coalition has done particularly well is make sure we as an industry are on the same page and not duplicating effort. We didn’t want to form another trade association – which the Coalition definitely is not – but create an organization with a laser-like focus on lobbying and grassroots. The other industry trade associations, all of whom have lobbyists, participate with the Coalition and give their input on legislative strategies. This means that we have a greater impact as an industry. Board members vote on what bills we plan to oppose or support and our annual advocacy plan, which sets forth a measurable plan for the year.

Importantly, all dues go directly to lobbying and grassroots efforts, not overhead like staff salaries. David Seckman is CEO of the Coalition and volunteers his time, as do I.

The Natural Products Association has evolved into a real legislative power house in recent years. What programs are you handling as Senior Vice President of Public Affairs & Strategic Initiatives? What is the association working on now?

In my 10+ years at the Natural Products Association, I’ve gotten used to wearing many hats. Although public affairs is the program area where I have spent most of my time, I have also spearheaded key initiatives within the association, such as our recent re-branding and fundraising drive to open an office in Washington, D.C.

We have a tendency to say here, when it comes to regulatory or legislative issues, there is never a dull moment. One of the most topical, in light of concerns about food ingredients coming from China, and one we are very excited about is our raw materials testing program that we launched recently in partnership with USP. Under this program, raw materials used in the most common dietary supplements will be tested in USP’s Shanghai, China laboratory. This represents a significant departure from the current process where U.S. companies must rely on a test by Chinese laboratories or test samples themselves in the United States. Our new program offers several benefits, including: reduced transit times and costs; greater traceability and documentation of ingredients used in the supply chain; use of state- of-the-art technology in testing; and a systematic approach to verification. From an advocacy standpoint, this is great story to tell about the industry is doing proactively to keep product quality high.

I’ve also been very involved in the association’s annual lobbying event, Natural Products Day, from its inception 10 years ago. Although this event is months away – April 8, 2008 – we’re already planning for it. It continues to grow each year with attendance both from industry and the Hill. It’s very gratifying to see Members of Congress signing on to co-sponsor a bill after our attendees have met with them and asked for their support. It demonstrates that we’re effectively getting our message across and making a real tangible difference.

You have been named Executive Director of the Natural Products Foundation. How did you evolve into that role?

It was really the foundation that evolved to the point where it needed the infrastructure that professional staff could supply. This is an evolution that occurs with all successful non-profit organizations as they transition from being supported solely by volunteers. The Natural Products Association, where I am still a senior vice president, was able to provide the infrastructure necessary to allow the foundation to grow. As for me, I have a broad-based non-profit management background, including fundraising experience, which is what the foundation needs right now. Having worked with the Natural Products Association for more than 10 years, I also have an in-depth knowledge of the industry we serve, which is critical at this point in the foundation’s evolution.

What is the Natural Products Foundation’s mission and structure?

The foundation is run by a 12 to 16 member board of directors who decides its strategic direction. Staff, including myself and others at the association, provide guidance and tactical support to make the board’s vision operational. The mission of the Natural Products Foundation is simple, but powerful: To promote the integrity of natural products through quality, science and education. There is a strong commitment by the board that its members “look like” the diverse industry it represents.

What are the programs the foundation has launched and why are they needed?

The volunteers who shepherded the foundation through its early stages took great care to identify industry issues that were a top priority and within the scope of the foundation’s mission. These included truth in advertising and finished product testing programs for dietary supplements, which were launched in July of this year. Although you can read more detail about these programs on our Web site [www.NaturalProduductsFoundation.org] – including signing-up to participate – let me talk briefly about each initiative. Through our truth in advertising program, we are asking any company that is involved in the creation and dissemination of dietary supplement advertisements – whether a manufacturer, media organization, ad agency or retailer – to join us in ensuring that these ads are truthful and not misleading. In turn, the foundation will list participants as program supporters and allow them to use our truth in advertising logo. We also provide a resource center on our site to help participants and others educate themselves about what is permitted and not permitted in dietary supplement advertising.

Regarding our testing program, we are fulfilling our mission of ensuring – and communicating – that the quality of industry products is high. Approximately 15 products will be tested per month and include some of the most popular consumer brands. We’ll be testing vitamins and minerals, nutrition bars and sports beverages and other products. Products are tested according to the label claim using the most scientifically relevant standards.
Just as with one of the Natural Products Association’s signature programs, TruLabel, all products are purchased through retail stores, not provided by the manufacturer or distributor Our testing results will be peer-reviewed by industry scientific experts and all results will be published on the foundation Web site.
The core of our industry is made up of people who want to help other people get and stay healthy, and product integrity and truth in advertising are two important ways to help achieve that goal.

What are future program plans?

We’ve just started the process of planning for 2008, but we should see expansions of both our truth in advertising and product testing programs. There may also be an opportunity for us to play a role in communicating and enforcing the definition of “natural” for cosmetics, which is something the association is currently drafting and should be available by early next year.

Many believe it is almost impossible to have a program with ‘teeth’. What kind of ‘teeth’ will the foundation have?

By “teeth” I’m assuming you mean programs that have some sort of consequence or enforcement component for non-compliance. In that regard, both our truth in advertising and testing programs definitely have “teeth.” Both programs will be completely transparent. If a company does not meet the standards code for our truth in advertising program, they can no longer participate. Similarly, all testing results – regardless of the outcome – will be posted on our Web site. That said, our goal with all our programs is to help participants not make mistakes in the first place through education.

Why a foundation? Couldn’t the association do those things?

It is very typical for associations to create foundations to carryout self-regulatory, educational and research initiatives. Many have the same type of relationship the foundation does with the Natural Products Association. A big difference is that donations to the foundation are tax deductible as a charitable contribution. We are also eligible to apply for federal and private grants, which wouldn’t be possible for some associations or other member organizations.

People say there are too many trade groups already that are vying for funding. How is the foundation funded and why is this funding needed?

I think the key here is addressing a need that is not currently being met – or can’t be practically met – by existing groups. We certainly don’t want to duplicate successful efforts. That’s not good for industry or for the foundation. In fact, since all our funding comes from donations, we need to ensure we are meeting unmet needs in order to maximize our support. For instance, our testing program is the type many manufacturers have wanted. And even though the association’s TruLabel program has similarities, it was not designed to test the volume and variety of products the foundation will be looking at. So that’s a clear industry need that we’ve been able to address.

--Look for part 2 of this interview in mid-November.

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