Amazon has been called out for years for allowing irresponsible brands to sell questionable products on is platform. However, some fear standards the online giant established in late 2020 to tackle this issue don’t mesh well with other retailers' rules and requirements, setting up a “patchwork” of different obligations. We talked to Council for Responsible Nutrition Vice President and General Counsel Megan Olsen about some of the challenges facing supplement brands on the platform.
What is CRN hearing from members about the Amazon's new supplement standards?
Megan Olsen: Amazon appears to require testing from an ISO 17025-certified lab, but does not dictate the lab. Some CRN members are concerned about this requirement, as it does not give manufacturers the flexibility to select third-party labs to work with or use their own in-house lab if those labs have not gone through the costly ISO 17025 certification process. CRN recognizes that not every third-party lab is equipped to understand and test for complexities of various products, so it is important that retailers understand lab testing must be completed by qualified labs. CRN welcomes the opportunity to work with Amazon to explore other ways in which a lab can demonstrate its reliability without necessarily being ISO 17025 certified.
Amazon is a tough landscape to police. Is CRN hearing or seeing enforcement actions taken?
MO: CRN cannot speak to any specific actions taken by Amazon, but has raised concerns that Amazon’s current process does not appear to include dispute procedures or other methods for a manufacturer to work with Amazon on compliance issues. CRN is concerned that the lack of these mechanisms could lead Amazon to take arbitrary enforcement action against reputable manufacturers simply because questions arose about the appropriate manner by which to demonstrate compliance with Amazon’s requirements.
Is there potential for retailers to provide more effective enforcement than the FDA and FTC have been able to accomplish?
MO: CRN recognizes retailers already play a critical role in ensuring consumers have access to safe and beneficial dietary supplements. For years we have been calling on retailers to more carefully curate their supplement offerings, and we welcome their efforts to help consumers differentiate between responsible and beneficial dietary supplements and less reputable products on the market.
However, when retailers develop their own standards that do not align with current manufacturing practices or that limit a company’s ability to work with a specific third-party lab, the result burdens manufacturers and fails to help consumers. Harmonizing standards will help to bring predictability across certifying bodies, demonstrate that responsible companies comply with the law and provide assurance to consumers that products on store shelves meet the strict expectations of regulators and retailers.
The Global Retail and Manufacturer Alliance and CVS also have standards. What roadblocks has that created for supplement brands?
MO: The Global Retail and Manufacturer Alliance (GRMA) has developed a scheme that incorporates the NSF/ANSI 455-2018 standard, Good Manufacturing Practices for Dietary Supplements. The purpose of this scheme is to provide retailers and others with a harmonized standard to review compliance with manufacturing regulations. Using this scheme is not mandatory, but CRN supports and applauds this accreditation program, as it will allow third-party auditors in the dietary supplement field to become qualified to use a single set of standards when evaluating manufacturers for GMP compliance.
We believe this self-regulatory initiative will lead to more consistent outcomes and make it easier for manufacturers to demonstrate GMP compliance to retailers and consumers, as it has the potential to reduce the number of GMP audits a manufacturer must undergo. The CVS "Tested to be Trusted" program requires third-party testing of products for dietary ingredient amounts and contaminants by a specific lab. This presents a challenge for supplement brands because many manufacturers already work with third-party labs they have developed relationships with, or they use their own in-house lab. If a company is using a different third-party lab than the one CVS specifies, manufacturers will likely have to conduct duplicative testing.
What needs to happen to harmonize all these standards, and how big of a challenge will that be?
MO: CRN believes that it is critical to foster a dialogue between retailers and the supplement industry in order to harmonize standards. We are concerned that the standards today are developed in a patchwork manor without industry input, leading to duplicative and inconsistent testing. The redundancy then introduces major cost increases that will eventually be passed on to the consumer.
To encourage this collaboration, CRN recently hosted a members-only webinar focused on retail standards and certification programs. The event provided an overview of ongoing retail certification programs, updates from GRMA and firsthand experiences from industry executives related to retailer standard compliance. CRN invited retailers to join the webinar to hear the industry’s perspective and see the impact that patchwork standards can have on companies and consumers alike.
Additionally, CRN is creating an internal Retailer Standards Working Group, comprised of CRN members, to facilitate conversation with retailers about streamlined standards. We are also working closely with GRMA and participating in forums hosted by this organization that bring retailers, manufacturers and trade associations to the table to discuss harmonization.
The primary concern of the supplement industry and retailers is the safety of consumers. CRN believes fostering a dialogue between both parties will help to harmonize retailer standards for testing dietary supplement products for quality and safety. While streamlining standards will not happen overnight, we know that retailers are open to discussion, and CRN is optimistic that the industry and retailers are moving in the right direction.