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Executive Interview: Q&A with Steven Mister, The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN)

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), founded in 1973, is a Washington D.C. -based trade association representing ingredient suppliers and manufacturers in the dietary supplement industry. With the recent departure of CRN President Annette Dickinson and the subsequent hiring of new President & CEO Steven Mister, many of us are curious about current priorities and how the new President will focus his energies. This interview with Steven Mister may help answer some of those questions.

NPI: You had some contact with the supplements industry when you worked for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which at the time was more present in our industry than it is now. What was your role there? How much contact and what type did you have with the supplements industry?

Having had experience in the supplement industry gives me a head start as the new president of CRN. During my later years at CHPA, I spent as much as 25% of my time on dietary supplement issues. My main focus centered on protecting responsible industry’s rights in the state arena, with issues relating specifically to proposed age restrictions on dietary supplements, introduction of labeling requirements that attempted to usurp FDA’s authority, ephedra legislation, and monitoring dietitian and nutritionist licensing laws to ensure they didn’t include inappropriate retail restrictions. In my last position at CHPA, as vice president and associate general counsel, I became involved in some of the federal regulatory and legislative issues including the agency’s bioterrorism rule, the steroid hormone precursor legislation and GMPs. My work at CHPA involved considerable on-going contact with member companies, many of which are also CRN members. CRN’s membership is more diversified than the supplement membership at CHPA and I’m looking forward to getting to know those companies and to representing a broader spectrum of the industry.

NPI: After CHPA you then left the industry for a year to work with the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO). How do you compare the state of this industry then and now?

In many ways, this is a homecoming of sorts, but in truth I wasn’t away that long. Not much has changed in that time frame. We’re still waiting for GMPs, we’re still hoping for passage of mandatory AERs for serious adverse events, and now we’re back to dealing with ephedra again. However, in the past couple of years, the industry has taken some steps that have moved us forward, including lobbying for passage of the steroid hormone precursor legislation, and I believe we’re moving in the right direction.

NPI: What experience or learnings from your time at NAPEO would you expect to translate to our current environment?

While at first glance my experience at NAPEO might seem unrelated to the dietary supplement industry, there are a number of similarities between the two industries and a number of “lessons learned” from my time at NAPEO that will be applicable to the initiatives I’ll be undertaking at CRN. For example, both industries are relatively new industries, one might say “in their adolescence.” (While supplements have been around for a long time, the post-DSHEA industry is just over a decade old.) Because of that, both industries have a number of companies that are antagonistic to regulation of any sort. Along those lines, both industries face distrust from regulators. As the supplement industry matures and as CRN and the other associations work to encourage all segments to embrace the fact that there is a reasonable balance in regulation that actually makes the industry stronger in the long-term, you’ll see an accompanying increase in consumer confidence and ultimately industry growth.

There is one difference between the two industries and that is the relationship to consumers. With NAPEO, our focus was on small business, whereas with the supplement industry, our actions are consumer-driven. Our member companies are very sophisticated about understanding that consumer wants and consumer needs are at the heart of their businesses. One of my priorities for CRN is to ensure that, we, too, keep consumers at the center of our efforts. That does not mean we plan to change the activities we undertake, nor does it mean that we plan more direct-to-consumer activities. It means that when we think about regulatory action or potential legislation that we keep consumers’ interests in mind. After all, regulators are charged with protecting consumers and legislators are looking out for their constituents’ interests. As an association, we too need to continually ask ourselves “what will this action mean for the consumer?” And our answers need to reflect responses that will benefit the public.

NPI: What is your assessment of the current state of the industry and what would you like to see change? What do you see as the biggest single challenge to the industry?

The industry is basically in good shape. Consumers continue to recognize that supplements have a key role in helping prevent disease and promoting good health. But we need to be ever-vigilant about that small percentage of companies that refuse to accept the responsibilities that come with being part of an established industry. When companies choose to make claims that they can’t support, it hurts the entire industry by driving the distrust we see from the media and some legislators and regulators. My hope is that as FDA continues to more fully implement and enforce DSHEA, and as FTC continues to take stronger action against irresponsible claims, companies not abiding by the law will be forced to change their game plan.

NPI: What do you like best, and least, about our industry?

What I like best is the fact that these are products that can have a positive impact on consumers’ well-being … that makes me proud to be part of this industry. What I like least are companies that dilute consumer trust by making outrageous unsubstantiated claims.

NPI: You have substantial government relations experience, which was a weak spot in our industry before the NNFA hired David Seckman five years ago. What are your goals in this arena? Where are the other most significant opportunities for you specifically?

Government relations will certainly be one of my priorities. CRN has had a strong presence on Capitol Hill for many years, both because of our reputation for taking advocacy positions based on the science, and more recently because of Mike Greene’s increased efforts – along with those of The Alpine Group, our lobbying firm – to build new relationships. Certainly my background means that I bring more of that experience to this association. I do intend to beef up our monitoring and coverage, as needed, in the states. In addition, CRN continues to be of the opinion that we need to stop just playing defense and spend considerable time talking about the benefits of our products and being able to responsibly demonstrate our attention to product safety.

NPI: What do you see needing to be done on state level, since that is where most of your government relations experience has been?

For now, CRN’s efforts will be primarily defensive. As issues arise we will be responsive to them. Certainly we need to be vigilant and to create opportunities to talk positively about the industry, and legislators need to get to understand our issues. In the states where there are large concentrations of members we will be more proactive. In fact we had a lobby day in Sacramento recently. We also have a lobbyist in California. There is a saying that you don’t wake up a snake to kill it. We don’t want to make issues where none exist. But we will have structures in place to respond quickly to let legislators know where industry stands on these things.

NPI: A bill has been introduced in Pennsylvania that would put supplements behind the counter. What do you see happening with this bill and what efforts are being made to defeat it?

Remember that saying about not waking a snake to kill it? This may well be one of those cases. Obviously we are concerned about the legislation, and we have been in touch with the sponsor’s office to convey our position. For instance, if this bill became law it would make it more difficult for parents to select a multivitamin for their families. Without the ability to compare products and labels that self-service affords, women would be less able to select the right calcium supplement for their needs. But given that it’s so broad, we are not even sure the sponsor was aware of these implications if the legislation passed, and we doubt that was his intent. But if we start to draw a lot of attention to it with grassroots letters and emails and such, the industry might pick a fight that otherwise wouldn’t come to pass. So we’ll work quietly to accomplish those objectives.

NPI: What challenges do you see ahead for CRN and how do you see your group’s role evolving?

Because of my background, I know there may be some talk that science may take a back seat at CRN. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Science has always been – and will continue to be – the cornerstone of CRN. In addition to Dr. John Hathcock, CRN has just added Dr. Andrew Shao to our staff, and CRN’s past president Dr. Annette Dickinson will continue to work with CRN on a consulting basis. One of my other priorities will be to build membership for the association and the first way to do that is to strengthen the value that we provide for existing members. We’ll look to increase our own member involvement in working groups, task forces and CRN committees. I feel strongly that it’s not enough for companies in this industry to just be the beneficiary of the work of the trade associations. Whether a company chooses to join CRN or another association, it’s important that each company in this industry take an active role in setting the agenda and working to move that agenda forward. Joining CRN is a good way to do that.

NPI: Many people think that John Hathcock and CRN’s science expertise is an extremely important component of the organization, but rumor has it John will retire next year. What are your plans to maintain your reputation for the industry’s ‘best science guy?’

Let me repeat that science will remain the centerpiece of this association. Dr. John Hathcock is highly regarded by CRN’s member companies, and staff, and as you’ve noted, highly respected throughout the industry and within the scientific and regulatory communities globally. John has indicated to me that he has no immediate plans for retirement and in fact plans to stay at CRN for, as he likes to say, as long as he’s having fun. Needless to say, I’m committed to making sure he’s having fun. As for those rumors, they could have been started by the same people who started the rumors that Codex will take away your vitamins.

NPI: CRN has occasionally been perceived as not being as collaborative as the other trade associations in our industry. Do you think that might change? For what kinds of things can you see increased collaboration with other associations and other industry groups?

CRN works first and foremost for our member companies, and in that way our association is no different than any other association. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is a lot more collaboration and positive interaction between the industry associations than we all get credit for. It’s really simple: anytime our interests align with the other organizations, we’ll work together; but we won’t hesitate to go our own way when a different direction is best for our members. There are multiple associations within this industry because there is diversity within the industry. That’s not always a bad thing. The bottom line is we’ll agree when we can, and agree not to agree when we can’t.

NPI: The Nutraceutical ephedra court decision has triggered a major anti-DSHEA reaction at all levels (Congress, the AMA, sports organizations, public interest groups and major media sources). What is CRN planning and what is its position regarding ephedra?

We read the decision more narrowly than a lot of the critics of the industry and I am disappointed that the decision is being interpreted by anti-supplements people to think it means FDA can’t regulate the industry. We look at the decision as upholding DSHEA and showing that it can work. The issue is that the standard that FDA used was not upheld. The court looked at the proof FDA used and said they got it wrong but that FDA can go back and redefine how it will determine significant risk and this can be done without touching the statute.

NPI: If we gave you a stage at a trade show to give a presentation, what would you want to say to the industry?

This is an exciting industry to be part of, and I am glad to be back in the consumer healthcare sector. It is not an industry without problems, of course, and there are plenty of threats to our businesses at the state, federal and international levels. In some ways, our biggest threat actually comes from within the industry from the outlandish, misleading and unsubstantiated claims made by just a few companies, but that tarnish the credibility of the entire industry with consumers and opinion leaders. We need to be resolved to stand up to these threats – whether internal or external – and resolve to work together to address these issues. We need to spread the truthful message about the benefits of our products and address the legitimate concerns of regulators. And we need to understand our consumers and surpass their expectations with everything about the industry. I think CRN is well-poised to accomplish that and I hope companies will agree and join us in that effort.

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