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Special Edition: Transparency in Dietary Supplements

Customers demanding transparency from supplement brands, retailers say

By Hank Schultz

21-Jan-2016
Last updated on 21-Jan-2016 at 17:04 GMT2016-01-21T17:04:32Z

iStock photo
iStock photo

The notion that food consumers are more committed to transparency than are supplement users is not borne out at the retail level, experts from two natural channel retailers say.

Natural channel retailers of dietary supplements say they are demanding increasing amounts of information from their suppliers because they are responding to the demands of their customers who are asking for more transparency.  Executives from Pharmaca and Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage who were contacted by NutraIngredients-USA said that customers are increasingly committed on this topic.

“I think this is going to be something that customers are going to be requiring routinely in the future,” said Don Summerfield, vice president of integrative medicine for Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy, a 30-store chain based in Boulder, CO with locations in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. Summerfield said that transparency is making a difference in the marketplace.

Transparency equates to market demand

“The vendors that are succeeding right now are the ones that are most transparent and shoppers are using their dollars to buy those brands.  They look at how food manufacturers are being transparent about where and how their food is made and they are expecting the same thing from their dietary supplements,” he said.

Summerfield said Pharmaca goes through an involved process to determine if a dietary supplement supplier warrants inclusion in the store’s list of products. The process includes a detailed questionnaire that suppliers fill out, a questionnaire that was developed in part by Dr Tieraona Low Dog, who is a member of the chain’s Health Advisory Board.

“We have an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) on what to do with those documents when they come back.  We have critical questions, and subcritical ones.  We rate the answers to the questions and often follow up with requests for additional information,” Summerfield said.

Some brands—Gaia Herbs and Megafood were two Summerfield singled out—are developing robust transparency initiatives of their own.  He said the chain is in the process of developing a policy around these, and pondering whether the way in which brands that are highly active in the transparency arena ought to be highlighted in some way.

“One of the things we have been talking with our Health Advisory Board members is this idea that a number of supplement brands are developing their own transparency programs. How should Pharmaca treat these programs? Should we market these brands that have transparency programs in place in the store in such a way that customers who are most interested in that can see that easily?” he said.

Alan Lewis of Natural Grocers said supplements have to pass a high bar to enter the chain’s stores.  Natural Grocers, based in Lakewood, CO, now operates more than 100 stores in 13 states, mostly in the western US, and has an unusual store profile in which the footprint is split more or less evenly between organic foods and beverages and supplements.

“We have a long list of ingredients that we don’t allow in dietary supplements sold in our store. Every quarter we have a team that spends at least a full day looking at new products to see if they merit shelf space and their ingredients are safe according to our standard. We also have a surveillance program, because some brands will be acquired by bigger companies and we understand that will bring a new set of economic pressures to bear, and we want to make sure things are still being done the same way," he said.

Milk as a transparency case study

Lewis, who is director of special projects for the chain, used the store’s commitment to sourcing only milk that came from cows eating grass in a pasture setting as a case study on its commitment to transparency.  Lewis said a careful analysis of the dairy market showed that many producers of ‘natural’ dairy products were using milk produced in factory farm settings, where in many cases they are housed indoors in densely packed conditions.

“We started our pasture-based dairy program when we realized that we were selling products that were made from cows that were eating inadequate forage so they were sicker than usual and needed more antibiotics.  We saw that the big national brands were turning a blind eye to where their milk was coming from,” Lewis said.

The store’s leadership decided that was not in keeping with their mission, so they instituted a program toward sourcing dairy products made only from milk that came from cows grazing outdoors. It required helping to foster a new supply chain more or less from scratch, but has been a success, Lewis said. It taught the company important lessons about the value of being transparent with its customers, he said.

“You have to set a standard and communicate that standard to your suppliers and to your customers. It has to be practical, and it has to be set up to be self-improving over time because everything you do is an iteration toward a goal,” Lewis said.

“And you have to be willing to take stuff off the shelf that doesn’t meet that standard.  We found that a key to success is to honor your customer, the shopper in the store, and to involve them in the process. In the dairy aisle we now have huge growth in our pasture-based dairy set,” he said.

Transparency Forum

NutraIngredients-USA is offering an online forum on February 11 on the topic of Transparency in Dietary Supplements.  Experts from NOW Foods, FoodState, the Council for Responsible Nutrition and the United Natural Products Alliance will weigh in.  To register for the FREE forum, click here .

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