Dietary supplement industry remembers Bill Richardson

By Asia Sherman

- Last updated on GMT

© Sunil_Garg / Flickr (CC_BY-NC-SA_2.0)
© Sunil_Garg / Flickr (CC_BY-NC-SA_2.0)

Related tags Dietary supplement industry DSHEA influencers

Former New Mexico governor and congressman Bill Richardson, who died Sept. 1 at age 75, dedicated his life to public service and freeing political hostages, but he also championed the dietary supplement industry when it needed it most.

“Congressman Richardson was the original Democrat House sponsor of the Health Freedom Act in 1992, which was the first in a series of three bills that ultimately passed as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act,” said Loren Israelsen, founder and president of the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA).  

“The Congressman went on to a distinguished career, principally in global diplomacy, but he will be remembered by our industry as that indispensable person to get the ball rolling with DSHEA in the House.”

A distinguished career

Richardson’s career included two terms as New Mexico governor, 14 years in Congress, a run for President in 2008, appointments as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of Energy and setting the Guinness World Record for shaking the most hands on the campaign trail. After his political career, he founded the Richardson Center for Global Engagement in 2011 to help free American citizens held overseas.

Just last month, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of this work, including helping to bring WNBA player Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Trevor Reed home from Moscow in 2022. 

“Over the years, I saw firsthand his passion for politics, love for America, and unflagging belief that, with respect and good faith, people can come together across any difference, no matter how vast,” President Biden shared in a statement, noting that “few have served our nation in as many capacities or with as much relentlessness, creativity, and good cheer.”

In New Mexico, Richardson successfully fought to repeal the death penalty, increase the minimum salary for teachers and the minimum wage, legalize medical marijuana, ban cockfighting, and promote clean and reliable energy.

Richardson’s indispensable role in DSHEA

His dogged commitment to freedom and public service also extended to the dietary supplement industry. In the early 1990s, the industry was at a crossroads, facing restrictive action and rulemaking by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which contended that supplements were unapproved food additives.

Although the names of senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) are more routinely mentioned in the context of DSHEA, Richardson (D-NM) was also a sponsor at the time and helped to maneuver the legislation through the House of Representatives.

In a statement issued on Sept. 5, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) said that Richardson was indispensable to the passage of the landmark regulatory framework, which created the modern dietary supplement industry and protected consumer access to its wellness-promoting products. 

“Gov. Richardson’s support of thoughtful, forward-looking regulation ultimately made the people of this country healthier,” said Steve Mister, president & CEO at CRN. “And today, the three out of four Americans who use dietary supplements, and our industry, owe him a great debt of gratitude.” 

Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), called Richardson’s early and ambitious efforts to advance the dietary supplement industry a flagship of his public service legacy.

“His sponsorship of the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act and commitment to advocating for consumer access to safe, high-quality dietary supplements and natural products to support personal health underpin the important work that we, at AHPA, and others continue to do,” he said.

UNPA’s Israelsen, who was a co-architect of DSHEA, recalled flying down to Santa Fe to convince Richardson to be the original House sponsor but said it didn’t take much. The congressman's constituency included a large Sikh community that had a direct economic interest in protecting natural products used in Ayurvedic medicine.

“He was the right guy for this assignment for DSHEA because it took someone that had the tenacity and the street fighter mentality, which he had,” Israelsen said. “It turned out to be a really good choice. We were exceptionally lucky to have such a skilled negotiator on board.”

Richardson took on the House Chair of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment Congressman Henry Waxman and other skeptics on the House floor and behind closed doors. 

“Time and time again Representative Richardson stood up for us, negotiating fiercely against the powerful Waxman and full Committee Chair John Dingell - who were not persuaded our bill was necessary,” senior political advisors to UNPA Patricia Knight and Peter Reinecke, who served as health policy staff directors for senators Hatch and Harkin, respectively, shared in a memo. 

They added that his foundational support contributed to the passage of DSHEA “by unanimous consent – an amazing accomplishment” and helped to lay the groundwork for many years of strong bipartisan support in Congress for dietary supplement issues.

Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director at the American Botanical Council, joined in recognizing the significance of Richardson’s endorsement of and leadership on DSHEA. 

"Although [his] career will be remembered for his important work in the international arena, as has been reported extensively by major news outlets since his passing, it is important for millions of Americans who rely on the responsible use of dietary supplements as a means of supporting natural health to acknowledge Bill Richardson for this important, yet not widely known part of his tremendous legacy – a major contribution to people’s health," he said.

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