“Many companies tell us they have a dedicated room where they bring the auditors and they sit them down. [They] ask for documents and you have people who do nothing but shovel documents in and out,” Israelsen told an audience at the Rocky Mountain Dietary Supplement Forum in Boulder, CO, on Sept. 15.
“That makes no sense. All of that could be done to a standard, and be done really in a much more efficient way,” he added. “Our view, this is a really important project for the industry collectively to work on this.”
The tedious certification landscape today
One of the main issues of today’s norm for auditing and certifying in the dietary supplements industry is the diversity and inconsistency. As Israelsen put it, there’s no clear, uniform scorecard, and that’s just counting the “certifiers that really do certify to a standard.”
Another problem, Israelsen argued, is the bounty of certification seals on products in store shelves today, especially the ones created by in-house marketing departments of dietary supplement manufacturers.
“Actually there is a guy, who for $5, would create a quality [seal logo] for you—they were specialized or certified by some sort of bogus entity,” Israelsen said, as he showed several slides filled to the brim with different GMP seals.
“The problem is, when you’re a consumer and you’re trying to make decisions on what to buy, and you go to the shelves, you have no idea what any of this means—and all the certifiers that really do certify to a standard are lost in that rubble,” he added.
But only a small percentage of consumers can identify NSF or UL
Israelsen added that consumer polling data revealed only 2 to 3% of consumers can identify NSF or UL as a true third-party certifier, “and when you show them a bunch of these other sorts of logos, they can’t pick one over the other.”
The effects are especially painful for companies that are doing all the right things, putting in all the money and effort “but what do you get in the end?”
“So when we’re looking at the cost structure we’re way out of whack with reality in terms of an efficient way to demonstrate that we’re in compliance, to do it once, be able to share that auditing information, put that into a safe area where you can recover that information and share that at your discretion, so you don’t have to have people coming in auditing you constantly.”
Before these ‘bogus entities’ are swept out of the industry, Israelsen said consumers can’t make an informed choice about a high-quality product.
How the dietary supplement industry feels about a single seal of quality
Israelsen presented survey data he collected at the UNPA summit on raw materials and supply chains held back in February of this year. The responses were given using remote clickers so the approximately 130-person audience can answer anonymously, “so we were able to collect the audience’s view on this—you tend to get honest answers when it is anonymous, so it turned out to be a lot of fun.”
He found that 35% of the attendees said they were audited 0-10 times a year, followed by 28% of attendees saying they get visits 11-20. There were 8% of attendees each who said they were visited for 31-50 times and 50 times a year or more by auditors.
When asked whether it is realistic for the industry to move toward a single seal of quality, the split was nearly half, with a slight majority (55%) thinking the concept quixotic, while 45% thought it was attainable. Nevertheless, 94% said they would support an initiative to harmonize audit process and scoring criteria.
But there are slight movements and pressure from regulators and retailers—such as Walmart’s announcement to eliminate “independent verification” from labels to comply with the Iowa AG. “The AG issues are there—but it raises interesting question about how do you explain to consumers and regulators who really did certify?”
“This is a problem we’ve had in the industry and this goes way back. We tend to hold what we have and think it’s so precious that nobody should have access to it. We know better than that, that if we share it, it will be better for the collective effort,” Israelsen said.