In my lifetime, I’ve not experienced anything like the novel coronavirus and its effects, and I know I’m not alone in this regard. The impact of COVID-19 has tentacles that are far-reaching and wide, with the potential to create a health crisis so severe that we can expect to lose people we know and care about. While obviously secondary to the potential for such losses, it also has the ability to create an economic earthquake that will profoundly change our country and the world.
That’s the real-world situation today. And each of us is dealing with these new circumstances to the best of our individual and collective abilities.
Adhering to guidelines while keeping businesses open
I’m hearing from AHPA members about their stringent adherence to CDC guidelines and their creative ways of keeping safe those staff who must continue to support the food supply but can’t work from home (including one who is now producing hand sanitizer for its employees and their families). I’m hearing about the great lengths to which supplier members are going to get ingredients to manufacturers. And I’m hearing about how hard members are working to get products to consumers concerned about their own and their family’s health. For AHPA, this means continuing to serve our members, the industry at large, and ultimately their customers.
Our members want and need accurate, current information, so we’ve created the AHPA COVID-19 Resources and Information Web Center to post updates applicable to our industry as they become available. AHPA is sending out regular updates to keep our members informed, and we hosted an AHPA COVID-19 Educational Webinar to focus on issues most relevant to industry’s operations and business decisions during this public health crisis.
What seems to be of most importance to our members, and likely to members of the industry at large, are two questions: “Is our business an essential one?” and “If so, how do we operate to protect employees and our consumers?”
The federal government, through The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has issued guidance on this topic. While not referring specifically to dietary supplements, the guidance declares as critical and essential the food and agriculture sector, which includes:
- Workers supporting groceries, pharmacies and other retail that sells food and beverage products;
- Food manufacturer employees and their supplier employees…;
- Employees and firms supporting food, feed, and beverage distribution, including warehouse workers…; and
- Workers in food testing labs in private industries and in institutions of higher education.
Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and various state-law counterparts, dietary supplements qualify as “food,” which in turn means that all of the above references to “food” apply to the dietary supplement products many of our members help bring to market.
Though this CISA guidance is helpful in understanding that the food industry is recognized as essential critical infrastructure, CISA has made clear that its guidance is “advisory in nature.” This flips the authority back to state and local governments, creating the need for companies to delve into a patchwork of state and local orders and recommendations for clarity on the status of each of their business locations. But it’s something that must be done.
Companies and workers need to check these state and local resources to determine if their operations qualify as essential and critical in each jurisdiction where they operate.
My home state—California—crystallized the guidance for our industry and its consumers by identifying “[w]orkers supporting cannabis retail and dietary supplement retail” as part of the “Essential Workforce.”
Not only is AHPA in touch with our member companies, we’re also working collaboratively with other trade associations to address the needs of our members’ businesses so they in turn can take care of their consumers. For example, early on in the crisis, we issued a joint statement reminding consumers and retailers that, “while research supports the use of certain dietary supplements to maintain immune system health,” U.S. law prohibits marketers of dietary supplement products from making disease-prevention or -treatment claims. This remains important advice. We have also co-signed three separate joint letters to state governors nationwide urging regulators to not only authorize the continued operation of dietary supplement businesses (among others) but also to ensure that businesses up and down the dietary supplement supply chain can remain active, with proper, heightened safety measures observed.
Industry forms a community
As we are a consumer-focused industry, we use the word “consumer” a lot. In this time of crisis, I find myself thinking more in terms of neighbors, community members, and fellow citizens. We need to remember that your friend down the street is not only our consumer but also your neighbor and a fellow American. We need to remain cognizant that your grandfather sheltering in place in his apartment is not only our consumer but also someone’s neighbor and a fellow citizen. And we need to remember that members of your religious congregation—whom you’re likely seeing now only through modern technology—are not only our consumers but also part of our community and our shared American culture.
The people we work with in the natural products industry and the consumers they serve collectively form a community of people who take their health seriously, and our members and other herbal and dietary supplement product companies are doing what they can to keep up with demand. Consumers are making it abundantly clear that they view the products we make as essential to their health and well-being.
For our customers—our friends, neighbors, and fellow community members—clearly, we are an essential industry. Stay well, my friends.
Editor’s note: Michael McGuffin is the President of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and a leading expert on dietary supplement regulation.