Editorial: Good Measured by Outcome, Not Intention

By Len Monheit

By citing negative headlines in our industry dialogue, do we give them validity? Should they always be immediately associated with a challenge or response? Or is the answer to boldly plunge on, ignoring the negative or adversarial, despite the fact that these are the very headlines that get a disproportionate amount of attention?

This was the very question I was asked to ponder in a recent Letter to the Editor this past week. It was an issue I was thinking about anyway, even as I made the decision to alert industry to the fact that a series of newspaper headlines appeared last Friday, obviously taking aim at industry, the most worrisome being one appearing in several newspapers which quoted former FDA research scientist William Obermeyer, co-founder of independent testing firm Consumerlab.com. “About one in four supplements tested don't meet quality or safety standards.” http://www.charlotte.com/476/story/143298.html (The quote was actually the article title in most of the publications.)

On reading this article, my first thought was (quite predictably I am sure) “This can’t be good for our (industry) business.” And lest one think that this issue was confined to herbal and specialty products alone, the article goes on to quote Consumerlab.com President Tod Cooperman, "There's no question the vitamin supplement area is as susceptible, if not more, to this type of adulteration."

I had several reactions to this issue. One thought pattern ran, “Does this include Consumerlab.com’s voluntary program results where companies pay to have their products tested? If so, (and we know that in this program Consumerlab.com only reports those products that have passed), then we now know that even their voluntary program is fraught with poor products. (Doesn’t say much for those companies paying them money, does it?) And if it doesn’t include those products, then the cited results in Friday’s column are simply misleading. (Editor’s note: Previous requests to obtain number of products which failed voluntary program testing were ignored by Consumerlab.com)

Another line of though went, “Where are the other testing organizations that have tested thousands of products in recent years? Why have they not anted up their results or challenged the one in four number? And quite simply, and perhaps being a measure of my own lack of faith in all products in the marketplace, I asked whether this one in four number could actually be correct.

As you can see in my response to the letter, there is a rationale behind NPIcenter’s Daily e-newsletter covering these types of issues. It’s incumbent upon us to know what’s going on in the media and marketplace in order to plan and to react effectively. I agree that articles and issues left unchallenged become ‘accepted truth’, and so urge those with actual test results to the contrary to challenge Consumerlab.com and McClatchy Newspapers.

Let’s face reality. Currently, any issue that ties quality (or lack thereof) to safety is going to garner huge headlines. For Consumerlab.com to be quoted in the midst of this environment was assured. They have managed to portray themselves as the experts in this arena and so their ‘perspective’ on product quality was going to be featured in any article relating to the supplements industry. As an industry, and in order for us to take charge of our own destiny, we have to know this to be current reality and either accept it, or change it. To simply not cover the article because Consumerlab.com is quoted would be inappropriate. Similarly, to not quote many of the Consumerlab.com results would be irresponsible, and would ignore fundamental quality issues that do exist in this industry, and as I have said before in this column, the very circumstances that have allowed Consumerlab.com to make the headlines they do make.

We are all measured by results, by our impact, presumably, more than by our intentions. And so for NPIcenter, if the impact is an answer to the challenge laid out by Consumerlab.com, then so be it. If the outcome is simply additional coverage and credibility for Consumerlab.com, with no constructive benefit for industry, then we must and do take responsibility for that.

Similarly for Consumerlab.com, if the result of their comments represents a significant decrease in industry credibility, and specifically a drop in product sales (and this latest headline plays right into the current food quality crisis), then they too must understand that despite stated intentions to the contrary, they are really not industry friendly.

In summary, if the outcome is to be better identifying of industry friends and supporters, we’re glad to play a role. If the outcome is to be outrage, we’re ready. If the outcome is to be an investment in quality control and assurance tools, industry-wide, then we’re proud to be a part of that too.

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