The supplement industry has long been known for its political power. Back in 1994, the combined strength of manufacturers, retailers and consumers was responsible for orchestrating the passage of DSHEA. The collective efforts of four trade associations successfully led to enactment of the mandatory adverse event reporting (AER) law in 2006 despite unlikely odds. And, as recently as 2015, CQ Weekly noted that, “The supplements industry knows how to work the Hill and usually gets its way.”
Larger, more diverse industry
Today, the industry is larger and more diverse than ever: entrepreneurs share shelf space with Fortune 100 consumer brands and others owned by private equity. Supplement sales span online platforms, direct sellers, and healthcare practitioners as well as traditional retailers. Ingredient vendors and manufacturers range from specialty niche to multinational behemoths, all of which demonstrate that getting agreement on policy matters is tougher than ever.
But consensus has never been more critical either. Policy, legislative and regulatory issues have the potential to expand the market—or undermine consumer confidence in these products. Industry members must develop agreement on these matters or risk having our critics make those choices for us. To paraphrase Lincoln, an industry divided against itself will not stand.
Issues that divide the industry
Take a look at the disagreements within our ranks across a wide range of issues. The industry uniformly opposes state-imposed age restrictions on our products (most recently in the weight management and sports nutrition categories). But we have not achieved agreement on whether a middle ground, like cautionary label statements, could provide a compromise that allows legislators a “win” but does not place unreasonable burdens on retailers.
Industry associations are divided on the merits of mandatory product listing, a proposal FDA is pushing in Congress. Despite consumer demands for greater transparency and the opportunity to shape the outcome (as we did with the AER law) various industry factions are preparing to dig in and oppose any product notification.
One association urges for expansion of mandatory listing to usher in a range of changes to DSHEA, while other associations caution that the political climate is not ripe for this legislation and even question the merits of these changes, sending our Congressional allies mixed messages.
Although industry and consumers alike want a legal pathway forward for CBD in dietary supplements, others propose giving FDA unprecedented authority to set a maximum safe level for this ingredient and the two camps plot against each other rather than seek common ground.
The FDA’s effort to remove N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) from the market is untenable, but the associations strategize in parallel rather than developing a united response to the agency. Posturing with alternative legal theories concedes to FDA the authority to issue a rulemaking based on safety data rather than holding them to account for misapplying the law.
Even a proposal as widely popular as the coverage of supplements in Flexible Savings Accounts (FSAs) generates differing views—one bill limits the expansion only to supplements that contain a structure/function claim on the label (thereby excluding many traditional vitamins and minerals that rely on word of mouth, and traditional wisdom to communicate their benefits), and another pursuing broader coverage for all dietary supplements. Which does industry actually support?
These differences matter. The infighting and disagreements among the associations gets noticed by lawmakers and our adversaries. The devil is always in the details, but nothing gets done without the details. So when associations take inconsistent, or even conflicting stances, it signals weakness and indecisiveness.
Need for constructive dialogue
We need to have constructive dialogue, to be able to identify the areas of disagreement, examine the reasons for those differences, and then try to find a consensus position.
At CRN, we seek consensus among our membership. That is not the same as unanimity. Sometimes it’s assessing the intensity of the opposition and looking for ways to help companies adapt to change. It’s the difference between a member who says “No” and one who says “Hell, no!” Sometimes the solution is found in the difference between asking “Is this a solution I absolutely love?” versus “Is this one I can live with?”
As the dietary supplement industry approaches 2022, it’s time to ask whether having so many voices vying to represent the industry is actually counterproductive to a unified agenda and a consensus position to advance our policy goals. I’m not urging for association consolidation—that’s an issue only companies can address with their membership dues—but I do think it’s time we worked a lot harder on reaching broad agreement on our policy objectives. Companies who belong to multiple associations should leverage those relationships to find common ground.
Four ideas to build around
Here are some thoughts to get us there.
First, each association should acknowledge that currently, no one association has the resources and capacity to do everything, and that other groups provide value as well. Aside from our policy advocacy work, associations create educational programming, consumer education, media relations and self-regulatory initiatives that serve the industry. We need to celebrate the contributions each makes to the industry and the initiatives each develops. That can serve as a basis for building trust.
Second, each company and organization must recognize that no one entity has all the solutions or a monopoly on correct answers. We benefit when we genuinely listen to other viewpoints and accommodate differing perspectives rather than fashioning daggers to outwit one another. The values we share—unflinching commitment to our consumers, the safety of our products, and the preservation of a vibrant supplement marketplace—are the things that unite us.
Third, we must be able to find compromise. Reasonable minds can differ, but when we speak to Capitol Hill, we need to settle on a consistent, unified position. To do that, one company may not get everything it wants, but the common ground should be a position that lifts the entire industry.
And fourth, we need to treat one another with civility, even when we disagree. A former debate coach advised me to treat the opponent as a misguided friend rather than a combatant. I think we our policy deliberations could benefit from that wisdom.
My friend Michael McGuffin (president of the American Herbal Products Association) often reminds me that we don’t all have to sing with one voice, but we have to sing the same song in the same choir. As I look at the year ahead, finding that harmony among the very diverse viewpoints in this industry will be more critical than ever.