Not surprisingly the reflections were both candid and mixed in measurement. Karen Howard, director of the Organic and Natural Health Association, immediately interjected the concept and importance of transparency to this discussion. Karen acknowledged the increasing awareness of transparency when promoting trust and integrity. However, she made an important observation about our industry specifically, but also appropriate to the concept of transparency in general, “people are always willing to be transparent with the good but not the ugly.” She went on to say we as an industry in 2016 increased our attempts to become more open when it comes to both the good and bad aspects of our industry. But, there are certain elements in our industry we are all aware of that bother us but we choose not to address. We refuse to discuss them because they are simply “ugly.”
Putting “ugly” aside and focusing on trust and integrity from a good and bad standpoint the conversation became much more constructive. Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group reflected the group’s overall opinion: “consumer trust in natural products is high, but that consumer trust is fragile.” While adulteration is still a problem in some sectors, the industry has become more vigilant about calling out bad actors. The opinion was expressed that the key to consumer respect and confidence is continually raising the standard of excellence to which the consumer should expect the products we as an industry provide are to be trusted.
The action is being taken to improve the resources providing the reasons to trust the dietary supplement industry. Steve Mister, President of Council for Responsible Nutrition, pointed to the newly create Online Wellness Library (OWL). The OWL program is accepting brand owner provided labels to create a registry whereby consumers can go to one place to compare products or verify information. Steve stated there would be a significant push in 2017 to encourage the entire industry to put products into OWL. This registry will demonstrate to both the industry and consumer the increased accountability and transparency being provided through industry action to address consumer confidence opportunity.
The American Botanical Council has been in the thick of the most blatant attack on trust and integrity in the dietary supplement industry. Continuing to follow and guide the fallout from the attacks in 2015 by state attorneys general on botanical identity testing has been a paramount issue to Mark Blumenthal, Founder and Executive Director, ABC. The Council has recently published six adulterant reports to the industry and is expanding the program to include more. Mark was very forthright in commenting: “Trust and Integrity are the #1 issues which exist in the dietary supplement industry. The industry has to fully realize the importance of the fact these ingredients are being put into products which are then ingested into human bodies!” Mark theorized the appearance of integrity in the industry is increasing but no extensive analysis has been conducted to prove this hypothesis. It was also noted increased communication and education through ethical research are the key actions needed to provide the tools necessary to achieve a higher level of respect and confidence from our consumers.
Every person queried made some mention of the August 2016 FDA publication of the new draft of the new dietary ingredient (NDI) guidance. Many commented working to achieve a fair, and equitable draft of this guidance is an opportunity to demonstrate to both consumers and government that the dietary supplement industry is committed to being transparent in the product introduction process. While not everyone is clear what the NDI final guideline might look like, most agree that a final agreed upon guidance would provide a more secure footing than the continued uncertain situation.
The new guidance document has not created a sense of consumer concern. The reality that the document is in discussion provides an opportunity to clarify and justify many of the actions the industry has been working towards in previous efforts. Providing greater accountability for ingredient manufacturers has been an ongoing rallying cry from brand owners and the new guidance supports this request. Pre-market notification of dietary supplement products has long been a non-negotiable item of consideration for the industry, but that hard line has softened over the past year. Many who would not allow the conversation to have a place at the table are now open for a framework of discussion and many others are openly supportive of the most basic of a requirement in this regard.
Why should consumers trust the industry?
In a Q1 NEXT/NBJ Study, 500 people were asked to rank the trustworthiness of various industries or institutions. Respondents were asked to express their confidence in 14 categories. Respondents placed small business as the most trustworthy with a confidence of greater than 70%. The Dietary Supplement industry received a credible confidence rating of under 40% ranking only above Big Business and Congress and below ten other categories including Banks, Television News and the Pharmaceutical Industry. The report in total indicated respondents want to believe in the dietary supplements industry but need more reason to do so.
Trust is fundamentally an emotion. There is no singular, agreed-upon measurement or definition of trust, transparency or integrity. Its absence is more easily recognized than its presence. But, it is more important to realize trust, transparency, and integrity are all assets to be earned. Consumers ultimately provide the value for our efforts to develop and improve these assets. The dietary supplement industry has ample opportunity to improve trust, transparency, and integrity both internally and externally. Above the opportunity it is apparent the desire exists. We have the opportunity, the desire and tools to continue to build in 2017 upon the trust and integrity our dietary supplement consumers know we can provide.
Editor’s note: Scott Steinford is head of both the CoQ10 Association and the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (NAXA)