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Where will the future leaders of the dietary supplement industry arise?

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags Dietary supplements Regulation

The dietary supplement industry could be headed toward a vacuum of leadership as recognized stalwarts pass away or retire, and their replacements have yet to be identified.

The dietary supplement industry as we recognize it today is perhaps 40 years old. A number of the people who ushered it through its first existential crisis have moved on or are nearing the end of their careers. Who will take their places?

Hatch and Harkin helped lay strong foundation

The industry had been blessed over the years with strong bipartisan support in Congress. Two lawmakers in particular filled the roles of what I like to call  the Moses and Aaron of the supplement industry: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA.  

Hatch and Harkin, and their staffs, helped usher through the foundation legislation of the industry, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.  Prior to DSHEA there was real concern that FDA would seek to classify most of the products that are sold today as dietary supplements as OTC drugs.  There were also attempts to set dosage limits for multivitamins.

In other words, without DSHEA, and without the leadership of these two Senators in getting it passed, the dietary supplement industry could look radically different than it does today, and consumers would most likely have much restricted access to products that they now take for granted.

One of the things the market created by DSHEA has fostered is robust innovation. Omega-3s, for example, are now available in a wide array of forms. Without the revenue generated by the sale of these products as dietary supplements it is hard to imaging that the same volume of research would have been done and these ingredients would probably not be benefiting nearly as many consumers as they do today.

Both Senators Harkin and especially Harkin enjoyed long careers in the Senate. During that time their leadership was critical in helping to get the adverse event reporting law, an essential adjunct to DSHEA, put in place.  And they also helped to forestall the quick implementation of FDA’s Draft Guidance on New Dietary Ingredients, which was first issued in 2011 and was reissued in 2016. Industry stakeholders voiced grave concerns about these guidances, and a push from Hatch and Harkin helped put a brake on the process until the sticking points were ironed out (a process that has yet to be completed).

No true standard bearer has stepped forward

But both leaders are retired now. Attempts have been made by industry trade associations to groom a new cadre of supporters in Washington. Those attempts have met with limited success. The political upheavals of recent years have meant that in some cases careers have been truncated.

For example, at one time Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT and Rep. Jared Polis, D-CO, were both vocal members of the Dietary Supplement Caucus on Capitol Hill. But Chaffetz resigned and has left politics, and Polis was elected governor of Colorado, and so is no longer in a position to weigh in on federal legislation.

So rather than the long journey with Hatch and Harkin, the industry got to ride those horses for just a few years. While the industry still enjoys robust support in Congress, there is no one you could really call a standard bearer.

Leaders in other areas are aging

Some of the trade associations and educational groups that support the dietary supplement industry have aging leadership as well. These are private organizations, so their succession planning would not necessarily be public knowledge.  Nevertheless, the word passed along the grapevine is that this in an unresolved issue in most cases.

In business planning, it would be considered prudent to have a plan in place for what to do if the founder/leading light is no longer there, for whatever reason. Would many investors be comfortable with the notion that, if so-and-so dies or retires, we’re just going to wing it? Nevertheless that seems to be where the industry finds itself.

Identifying new leadership

It’s an open question about where the new leaders will come from. There are a number of younger faces driving industry collaborations, stepping up to lead organizations and so forth.  Whether these people will choose to accept the burden of helping to lead an entire industry rather than keeping within the boundaries of their own initiatives is something that will play out in the future.

There are some names I could fill in here, but that puts us here at NutraIngredients-USA in something of a bind. Would we be identifying true leadership candidates, or just playing favorites?  

We’re trying our best here to be an independent news voice after all, and that doesn’t extend to picking winners and losers. I’m always a bit suspicious of those “thirty under thirty” type lists you seen in a lot of magazines. They seem a ripe opportunity for graft.

So while this might seem to be passing the buck, I put the question to you. Who do you think will lead the industry in the future?  And, if such a person (or persons) does not come readily to mind, what can the industry do to foster such leadership for the future?

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