Torch passed in Senate during NPA lobbying day

By Hank Schultz in Washington, DC

- Last updated on GMT

Senators Peter DeFazio, left, and Tom Harkin, right, attended an evening reception that capped off NPA Day, the organization's annual member lobbying effort.
Senators Peter DeFazio, left, and Tom Harkin, right, attended an evening reception that capped off NPA Day, the organization's annual member lobbying effort.

Related tags Dietary supplements Dietary supplement health Natural products United states senate Anabolic steroid

The Natural Products Association lobbying day began with an address from a new advocate for the industry and ended with remarks from one of the industry’s oldest champions.

A reception in a sunken garden at the end of the organization’s annual gathering in Washington, DC on Tuesday featured a short speech by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, who was presented with the Congressional Champion Lifetime Achievement Award by the organization.  Harkin, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, form the brace of legislators who helped push through the most important piece of legislation for the industry, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. In this 20th anniversary year of DSHEA’s passage, Harkin thanked the organization for the work it has done in helping Americans to take control of their health. And he said he will continue to be involved with issues he cares about after his time in the Senate is over, with dietary supplements being one of those issues.  

Old guard greets new guard

“This is my last year in the Senate,”​ Harkin said. “This will be the last time I address you like this as your Senator.  And I say ​YOUR Senator, because whether you come from Iowa or another state, my vote for you counts just as much.

"I’ve been looking for someone to take over for me after I’m gone.  I think I’ve found that person.  At Natural Products Expo West, I met Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and I said, ‘You and I need to talk,’ ” ​he said.

It was Heinrich, one of five Senators who are current members of the Dietary Supplements Caucus, who addressed the morning gathering of NPA staff and members before they descended on Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress. Heinrich said his advocacy of the industry stemmed from personal conviction.

“One of the first things my wife and I did when we graduated form college and settled in Albuquerque was to join a health food co-op.  My wife ended up becoming a member of the board,”​ Heinrich said.

“We have a supportive population in New Mexico interested in natural products and herbal supplements. We have Pueblo Indians growing herbs that end up in some of the products in your industry,”​ he added.

Both Heinrich and Harkin stressed the positive contribution healthy foods and supplements could make in tackling America’s looming health care crisis.

“We need to embrace change, to take a different approach to health care,”​ Heinrich said. “I am so excited about this business because it represents a sea change in the way the American people thinks about health care.  The products your industry makes are some of the things Americans think about when they want control in their lives.

“We have to get ahead of these looming health care issues. If we just try to treat diabetes (or other chronic diseases) the costs of that are going to crush us,” ​he said.

After Heinrich’s speech, some pointers on lobbying etiquette and a brush up on the organization’s position on the matters at hand, members dispersed for a helter-skelter day of meetings with Representatives and Senators, some of whom are already members of the supplement caucus and others who were asked to join. In every meeting, the NPA members were asked to touch on the following issues:

Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act

This Senate bill would allow the Drug Enforcement Agency to identify and and list anabolic steroids more effectively.  It would help DEA keep steroids out of the market and would help to aggressively prosecute those who misbrand anabolic steroids as supplements. Members were generally receptive to the idea that steroids need more control.

“These are illegal drugs masquerading as supplements,”​ said Neil Levin, nutrition education manager for Illinois-based supplement manufacturer NOW Foods.

Genetically Engineered Right-to-Know Act

This act, introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-CA and Peter DeFazio, D-OR, seeks to establish a single federal standard mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods to pre-empt a patchwork quilt of state laws on the issue. 

“You don’t want 50 different state laws on GMO’s. I get that,”​ said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-IL. 

But the idea didn’t receive universal acceptance. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-NJ, an industry advocate who is the co-chair of the supplement caucus in the House, said that making the case for mandatory labeling is complicated by what he saw as a dearth of evidence showing GMOs pose health risks.

“You say people should have a right to know, but to know what? That almost everything they might buy has GMOs in it but there is no evidence that GMOs are bad for you?

“It would be an easier sell to FDA if this was info that was useful for people in determining whether they should or shouldn’t use GMOs.  That’s different than saying, ‘Just label it,’ ”​ Pallone said.

Dietary Supplement Labeling Act

NPA members also weighed in with their Congressional delegations on the subject of Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) continuing efforts to impose additional labeling requirements on the dietary supplement industry.  According to NPA’s analysis, Durbin’s bill would require the Institutes of Medicine to evaluate the safety of, and impose mandatory labeling requirements for, dietary supplement ingredients and proprietary blends that IOM determines could pose potential health risks. The law would require FDA to compile a list of such ingredients and blends that could pose risks, and require manufacturers to submit descriptions of all products manufactured in a facility, all of the ingredients in those products, and copies of all of the labels. 

NPA members repeated a message the organization has delivered before, namely that Durbin’s act (which so far as only been introduced in the Senate with no companion House bill) is overkill. “Durbin wants to handle the problem of some people speeding at 90 miles an hour by putting the speed limit down to 30 for drivers going 65. We think the answer is to give FDA the budget to enforce the exisiting laws,” ​NOW’s Levin said in a meeting with Duckworth. 

Levin was preaching to the choir in this case, as Duckworth appeared sympathetic to the idea that the industry is already adequately regulated.  But changing Durbin’s mind is another challenge, admitted Al Powers, president of NOW Foods, saying that both Durbin and Duckworth have toured NOW’s manufacturing facility in Bloomingdale, Ill. and apparently reached different conclusions about the safety of dietary supplements and the appropriateness of current regulation.

“We have our work cut out for us to get [Durbin] to focus on the rule and not the exceptions in this space,”​ Heinrich said during his morning address.

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