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Midterm upheaval in Washington likely won't translate to supplement industry

Several notable supporters of the supplements industry are leaving Congress following the retirement of Sen. Hatch and the Democratic flipping of Republican seats, but no major changes have been predicted yet for supplement regulation.

A divided congress could leave little space for new regulations that might shake up the supplement industry. However, the incoming crop of new legislators does present a great opportunity for renewed engagement, such as having representatives at supplement trade associations.

The biggest change for supplements in Congress is the retirement of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. This and other departures present the industry with a challenge to recruit new voices for the Dietary Supplement Caucus. Colorado Rep. Jared Polis is moving into the governor’s mansion, while other caucus members like Texas Rep. Pete Sessions and Illinois Rep. Pete Roskam were among the Republicans who saw their seats flipped to the Democrats. Meanwhile, Arizona Rep. Krysten Sinema will move over to Senate offices while Mia Love, the Utah representative who co-chairs the caucus, is still waiting for a final count more than a week after the election.

Overall, an election that has shifted further to the Democratic side as late calls continue to arrive might normally mean more of an impact for the industry; that is, it weren't for distractions in Washington, insiders say.

American Herbal Products Association President Michael McGuffin says the restructuring might have been more concerning if it came during a less chaotic year. “It's just historically a fact that the Democrats are much more likely to push for new regulatory authority,” McGuffin said, quickly adding “I frankly don't think it's a great big threat this year because the Democrats have been out of power for so long that I think they're going to distract themselves with things like Mr. Trump's tax returns and impeachment discussions.”

That same distraction dynamic could hamper industry projects like getting multivitamins qualified for purchase with food stamps, says Mike Greene, senior vice president for government relation at the Council for Responsible Nutrition. The Republicans will likely attempt to pass the farm bill before the new congress is convened and the multivitamin provision is may not garner enough attention to be considered. “I think it’s too small a thing to get focused on in the negotiations,” Greene said.

No matter the distraction and the lessened need to play defense, the demographics of the incoming class suggest opportunities says Karen Howard, executive director at the Organic and Natural Health Association. Younger representatives, women and military veterans are all likely to be aware of and possibly enthusiastic about taking supplements. “We now have more women than we’ve ever had in Congress,” Howard said. Issues and developments around women and children's health should present opportunities for engagement that could turn out to be positive for the supplements industry. “I think that’s a really good place to be,” Howard said.

Greene said plans are being made to engage with the new members of congress concerning those very ideas. “We are looking at this new freshman class coming in a little differently than we have in the past,” Greene said.

At least one of the people departing from Congress will not be missed by the supplements industry at large. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill was a frequent critic of supplements, particularly cognitive formulations, and used her position on the Senate Aging Committee as a pulpit, says Patricia Knight, political consultant for the United Natural Products Alliance. “Supplements have not been a major issue for the Congress, with the exception of a few things like Sen. McCaskill’s investigations,” Knight said.

Knight said other moves are also of note—Dietary Supplement Caucus member New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone is set to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee and New Mexico Senator Martin Henrich–also a caucus member–won by commanding margin. What remains to be seen is if changes are in store for dietary supplements. “Nobody has a feel for the new Congress yet,” she said.

Whatever happens on Capitol Hill, McGuffin says AHPA will keep some of its focus on unelected entities who might be eyeing the current power vacuum and particularly from the departure of Sen. Hatch. He points to the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Charitable Trusts as advocates for strict supplement reform that will also have lobbyists jockeying for position. “Though nothing necessarily is going to happen, it’s time to up the lobbying game,” McGuffin said.

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