Is 2016 The Year The Industry Grows Up?

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If you consider 1994—the year the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed—as the beginning or birth of the modern dietary supplements industry, then the industry just turned 21 this past October. Legally, it’s an adult now. If it was a person, the industry could now vote and buy alcohol.

So maybe it’s time that the industry started acting like an adult. And maybe it is starting to, but not necessarily because it has suddenly gained the maturity of adulthood that you may remember creeps into your life—hopefully—somewhere in your 20s.

No, industry is growing up because it has to. It’s because its parents and the other elders in its life have pushed it there. And that’s not a bad thing.

In this case, the industry’s parental units are a collective that includes a father figure: stepdad New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman (let’s call him the stern but ambitious and hard-working dad); Mom, aka former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who recently separated from dad over a series of extended arguments about how best to discipline the kids. She always seemed a bit distant and distracted; Grandma Sen. Claire McCaskill (she’s Eric’s mom—she’s well-meaning. He was an only child in this story); Pieter Cohen, the nerdy uncle that you could never get close to but who always was kind of nosey and had an attitude; and finally, there’s your New York cousin, New York Times writer Anahad O’Connor, who was the cousin who always thought he was right about everything.

After a rocky start due primarily to industry’s young parents not wanting—or knowing how—to take on their new parenthood, the industry has had a great childhood, growing, learning, exploring and getting into trouble the way kids will. Nothing too serious, really, except for encounters with a couple of playground bullies, those companies that were always pushing buttons and not wanting to play nice or play by the rules. But as in real life, those are the companies that either get with the program at some point or they just don’t do well in society—sooner than later, they become outliers and are the ones who end up with no real friends—other than other bullies, that is.

But as one ages, has more experiences, matures and moves into adulthood, certain responsibilities accompany that passage. The lessons can be hard—but they’re an important part of that maturation process.

In the case of industry, those responsibilities—repeat along with me here—compliance with Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP), adherence to permitted and truthful structure-function claims based on real science, establishing and maintaining the highest level of trust with our consumers, and being good corporate and world citizens—are the mark and hallmark of maturity. Are we there yet, dad?

There are times when one has transcendent experiences that fundamentally change your life. They’re the times that you never forget because they inform everything you do going forward. They become part of your DNA. And maybe, just maybe, industry has had a few of those experiences in 2015 between AG investigations, high-profile legal cases, questionable ingredients, adulterated products, FDA essentially saying that it can’t regulate industry, Senate calls for more regulation and the continuing parade of misinformed bad press.

Nothing in those herbal extracts? Well, that’s what dad said, but he didn’t actually have his facts right. But it didn’t matter because he’s the boss, and doing what he said was better than getting grounded. Wait, we did get grounded on that one.

DNA testing: This is the industry equivalent of telling your folks that you were staying at your friend’s house for an overnighter when a couple of you actually hitched down to the city to see a show. Oops. The industry got caught and now has to report in on its location all the time—even when it really is staying at its friend’s house. This is the lesson where you learned that trust is earned and not assumed and where you started to “get” the concept of accountability.

State AG actions: Your nosey uncle decided that he was one of your parents! Who told him that he could get away with that? But he decided you needed to learn another big life lesson: authority can come from many sources, even if you think your parents were already too strict.

Negative media: This one is one of the worst memories of industry childhood, when the bullies got together in third grade to spread vicious and untrue rumors about it—that it was a cheat and a phony. The stories weren’t true, but industry still had to assure its friends that the stories weren’t true. Yeah, you got beat up a couple of times, but you stood your ground. At some point, industry will have to confront the bully to set the record straight. Funny thing: later on, industry and the worst bully from grade school ended up living on the same floor in the same dorm in college and became best friends. It could happen here.

It’s no coincidence that the industry’s new year will see increased focus on ingredient and supply chain transparency, DNA testing, Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance, greater engagement with state AGs, and an even bigger microscope from media. It’s adult stuff, but it’s time for the industry to step up and take it all on.

This is what growing up is all about: having experiences and learning lessons—including ones from sources that you weren’t quite expecting, taking on responsibilities and being accountable. It’s not always pretty, and sometimes you take a step back for every one you take forward, and it’s not often fair. But it is what it is. In other words, it’s what becoming an adult is all about.

Is 2016 the year the industry becomes an adult? Are we there yet?

Published in WholeFoods Magazine Online, 12/28/2015