Deemed 'essential' part of healthcare in wake of pandemic, dietary supplements have a shot at credibility

Listed alongside pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, dietary supplements are classified as "healthcare." But can the industry live up to the opportunity?

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

April 6, 2020

3 Min Read
Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements reveals the highest overall dietary supplement

Soaring demand for supplements driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and new Department of Homeland Security guidance recognizing the industry as both “essential” and a part of healthcare could give supplement makers an opportunity build a better relationship with the government, one trade association head says.

A major challenge facing the supplement industry amid the pandemic has been ensuring that authorities consider the manufacturing and distribution of supplements as an essential business activity. Though state and local officials could still rule differently, that question was largely settled in late March when the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) included supplements in a memorandum on “essential critical infrastructure works.”

Supplements were included in a paragraph alongside personal protective equipment, pharmaceuticals, vaccines and medical testing materials.

Council for Reponsible Nutrition President Steve Mister said that the trade associations were confident dietary supplements would be deemed essential, but also noted that it is “nice when you see it in black and white.”

“It dots the I’s and crosses the T’s,” he said.

The move could also open the door to next steps for the industry. The surge in demand is an obvious sign of widespread consumer confidence in supplements, but the inclusion of supplements in the CISA memo adds an element of “credibility” that shouldn’t be wasted.

Mister points to the potential for making supplements eligible for purchase in flex spending accounts as one possibility. OTC drugs were upgraded to eligible in the first round of stimulus that was tied to the pandemic, and this could provide an opening for other healthcare products.

“The fact that we are now recognized as essential and part of healthcare may make it easier to make that argument,” Mister said.

The pandemic is offering other chances for the industry to take an advocacy role with regard to public health. CRN, the United Natural Products Alliance, the American Herbal Products Associaition and the Consumer Health Healthcare Products Association all joined forces in an April 6 letter applauding the FDA for taking action against brands making fraudulent coronavirus claims.

With FDA staff stretched thin, the agency has also suspended site inspections, giving brands a opportunity to demonstrate long-promised, effective self-policing.

While he sees an opening for greater cooperation with and higher regard from regulators, UNPA Executive Director Loren Israelsen says the temptation of a stretched-thin regulatory force and soaring demand could be the biggest challenge for the agency in the COVID-19 era.

Just because supplements share a paragraph with pharmaceuticals doesn’t change the fundamentals of regulation, Israelsen explains. “People will take advantage of that upgrade, and somehow convince themselves ‘Great, we can make stronger claims. We can talk about COVID-19,’” he says. “Something that requires our collective vigilance is to slap that down if we see anything like it.”

As the pandemic unveils new challenges every day, the supplement industry will doubtlessly facechallenges beyond the early tasks of finding an adequate supply of ingredients in a disrupted supply chain to meet the sudden spike in demand. For now, supplement manufacturing has been labeled as “essential,” and that’s a win.

Mister is not even trying to get trade associations into the essential bucket. He's working from home. “We’re not allowed to go into our offices, but we're trying to make sure that our members can go into theirs,” he says.

About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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