The dietary supplement industry has been on the receiving end of negative reports in the mainstream media in recent years, with many media outlets covering studies that establish correlation but then reporting them as causation.
“What this creates is a general misinformation that the public is walking around with, and it’s bad information and people are making health decisions based on it,” Courtney Nichols Gould, co-founder and co-CEO of SmartyPants, Inc, told listeners to the NutraIngredients-USA Business Leaders Forum.
“I don’t think it’s one we can fix by creating brand campaigns around omega-3s,” she said. “The public perceives media reporting as authentic information even though we know the media sometimes gets it wrong. The problem with responding with an ad is that you are using a form of communication that consumers are typically suspicious of to begin with.
“I think there’s a longer game here that has to do with shifting the focus of what the media is talking about, and creating some positive stories that are compelling enough that they want to cover them, so the media starts to talk about and show examples of supplementation having a really positive impact.
“And so for us, looking at the work of Vitamin Angels and some of these non-profits that are providing supplementation to communities in need and the dramatic and demonstrable impact that has on those populations. So it is a different story and makes it harder for journalists to consistently be writing about these positive impacts and then say vitamins are useless. It’s about changing the conversation and not ad campaigns about media reporting.”
Nichols Gould was joined on the panel by Tom Tolworthy, president and CEO of Twinlab, Jim Emme, CEO of the NOW Health Group, and Andrew Shao, PhD, VP of Global Product Science and Safety, Herbalife.
Herbalife’s Dr Shao said that journalists are no longer experts in health and nutrition, and they move from beat to beat. “It’s up to our industry to engage them and place these studies into context, and that’s really where the communications folks at the trade associations become critical.
“We also need to talk about the role of the medical journals because they have their own PR machine, they have a need to generate ad dollars, so they promote these controversial studies to the consumer media. The industry has no involvement in many of these studies. A lot of studies are ill-designed and ill-conceived and the industry is not involved. We have to work harder to engage with academia to help shape and influence the design of these studies.”
‘Bringing it on ourselves’
Twinlab’s Tolworthy said the industry invites an awful lot of the bad press upon itself. “What the media does, and what they’re doing in our industry now and they do in any other industry is to focus on issues with safety, issues with consistency, with delivery to the marketplace. We invite a lot of this scrutiny on ourselves when you have products like Jack3d that are allowed to come to the marketplace.”
“I do believe the media approach crosses industry areas,” said NOW Health Group’s CEO, Jim Emme. “It doesn’t matter if it’s automotive or something else, bad news is an easier story to tell. Certainly, we have been under attack as an industry for the last three years to a level that is unprecedented in recent decades. It doesn’t help us.
“There is also the perception among consumers that we are an unregulated industry, and that’s just not true. We’re a highly regulated industry.”
Which brings us very nicely to topic of DSHEA: It’s 20 years since the passage of the law that made the industry, and a lot has already been said about the state of the industry in 1994 and today. Emme described it as a “great law.
“It changed our industry and changed our company for the better,” he said. “We don’t support talk of pre-market approval of products. Let’s enforce the law we have, let’s take the law and make it work.”
“You cannot find a greater period of innovation in this industry than between the passing of DSHEA in 1994 until the banning of ephedra,” said Tolworthy. “What DSHEA did during that time really defined the roadmap for innovation. It was well defined and well understood. But the industry today is different than it was in 1994. You have a lot of brands that exist today that didn’t exist back then. Consumer preference across niche categories in niche brands is a lot different than it once was.”
Barriers to entry?
According to Tolworthy, the part of the DSHEA that doesn’t serve the industry well and doesn’t contribute to consumer confidence is in the world of manufacturing: “When I look at barriers to entry that’s where I would take one: Where anyone who manufactures dietary supplements has a certification. They get an FDA audit and they get a certification, a stamp put on their product that says, ‘my product is manufactured in an FDA certified facility’.
“That barrier of entry alone, in improving the quality of the products that are brought to consumers, would eliminate a considerable portion of our bad press, would eliminate unhealthy and unsafe products being brought to market, and would make those separate responsible manufacturers that exist today who are already spending to embrace GMP regulations from the bad actors.”
Emme added that NOW supports the concept of a standardized certification process where a company can say we’ve been audited by the FDA. However, this should be driven by the trade associations working together, he said, and not by regulations.
Taking an international perspective to DSHEA, Herbalife’s Dr Shao said that when emerging markets look for models to follow for their own laws, they consider specific factors, including categorization (a legal definition), market entry, manufacturing standards, labeling and claims, and post-market surveillance.
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“DSHEA set a model for a number of countries because of a strong GMP standard, AERs, a separate definition and category for dietary supplements,” he said. “The low barrier to entry, however, is something that countries don’t look to. It’s perceived as being too easy to enter the marketplace, too easy to make claims that are not being reviewed in any way. Countries are not looking to the US for those; they’re looking to other places, like the EU, like Canada, like Codex.
“What we want to aim for is striking the proper balance between consumer access and choice and keeping consumers safe. I think DSHEA does some of those things nicely and maybe other things not so great, and that’s really the challenge for these emerging markets around the world: How do they strike that proper balance?”