Editorial: Thoughts from Expo East

By Len Monheit

On the way back from Expo East in Washington, I pondered the interactions with industry leaders and participants at one of the year’s major events.

While gaining a clear picture of the ‘state of the industry’ is complicated at the best of times, this year it may be even more confusing. The Expo seminars included a state of the industry overview, well laid out to allow focus on retailer, supplier and manufacturer issues in separate sessions, and of course the discussions at various venues and events associated with the show were enlightening. Many show goers, for perhaps the very first time in their careers, were tentative and not sure of the long term success and vibrancy of the industry.

The numbers show growth in sectors of the industry, some in the double digits. Major mainstream companies continue to play an active role in the industry, and sports nutrition, weight loss, organic and niche prospects are very strong. Acquiring new customers though, and introducing them to the industry is obviously critical for future growth.

In the ‘State of the Industry’ session, Walt Jones, President of Caraloe, a subsidiary of Carrington Laboratories, stated that supporting only quality suppliers and building a strong brand position are imperative. He acknowledged that both of these efforts have cost implications, especially in the short term. Quality products cost more, and building a brand can be expensive. Also in this session, speaking from an international perspective, Brian Craig of Inter-Cal Corporation noted that product uniqueness and trademark and patent position were critical, while admitting that as product success is achieved, low-cost knockoffs appear in a very compact product lifecycle.

The discussion which followed touched on some very important issues:

  • Self-policing may be better in some ways than a regulatory environment in which the industry has little influence.
  • There is a double edge to the efficacy debate. If we grant that products have physiological effect, (in some cases significant) is there not a responsibility to have enforceable standards in place to prevent abuse and to ensure that only consistent, highest quality products reach consumers?

I heard yet again, several examples of companies incorporating less than adequate doses of sub-standard products into finished goods which were then touted as providing the benefits established in clinically researched and proven products. While this environment remains, industry participants are right to be tentative.

Events in the near future including the CRN Annual Conference this week will further clarify the real ‘state of the industry’, but to say that concern for the future of supplements and nutraceutical products is minor is a gross understatement. Walking the supplement floor at Expo East was an adventure, and provided clear examples of why regulatory agencies and consumers repeatedly express their lack of confidence in the industry.

I sincerely hope that some of the dialogue behind the show is continued to bring about some real change and teeth to the industry, so that all sectors can participate in the type of success and opportunity being enjoyed by the natural food and organic sectors.

Most will agree that the show was a success, but perhaps the real assessment must wait until the mid-term, when we’ll know whether the industry is ready as a whole to take a longer term and view and more responsible position as it chooses products and suppliers; when the entire industry and consumers alike are comfortable enough and even encouraged to ask questions like ‘how do you know this product works?’

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