The two recent actions by Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, against eight (and counting?) companies selling botanical products in retail outlets in New York serves as a reminder of a couple of harsh truths for industry:

* In addition to FDA and FTC, the supplement industry is also subject to the whims of regulatory agencies in those states where they do business

* The mainstream media continues to be complacent and complicit with entities that provide sensationalist headlines while they conveniently ignore telling or downplay both sides of a story

* Not to discount the direct costs to those companies that must comply with the AG’s “requests,” the most onerous costs of these and other future investigations are likely to come from class-action lawsuits as well as from a continued, long-term erosion of consumer confidence in dietary supplements.

This is not the first time that the industry has faced overwhelmingly difficult regulatory actions, including the removal from the market of ephedra and L-tryptophan, or unfair media coverage, such as reporting on St. John’s wort efficacy. And it won’t be the last.

Ironically, three of the very strengths that make the industry exciting and robust—a low-entry threshold, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and an independent sense of self—contribute to its biggest problems: rogue players; no unified voice to legislators, consumers and the media; and little proactive, financial support for initiatives to promote and expand the industry.

With all of this in mind, below are a couple of “What ifs?” that, if they were part of the industry’s day-to-day operations, the factors leading to this most recent wave of regulatory grief and negative media might have produced different outcomes—or maybe they wouldn’t have happened at all.

What if FDA was properly funded so that it had the resources and will to effectively enforce the regulatory structure that was created around the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act?

High-profile, consistent and swift federal enforcement of the law would have removed any reasons for the N.Y. AG to single out and attack the industry. It would have removed the red target on our collective backs for mainstream media that seems eager to pick fights with industry. Enforcement would also remove many of the cries of “unregulated!” that we’re all tired of hearing.

What if media was properly informed about industry, including the regulatory structure that it operates under, so that they provide more balanced reporting and, perhaps, less sensational headlines?

As digital media continues to change the way that consumers access their news, social media and online content will continue to emerge as leading voices. Old media voices, the old-school journalists with anti-supplement chips on their shoulders, will hold less sway or retire. Industry’s ability to get its positive messages out to media and consumers holds our best opportunity to turn this tide if those messages are clear, concise, factual and relevant.

What if everyone was engaged and active in both the legislative and political processes?

The unity of purpose that surrounded the passage of DSHEA in 1994 and the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 is sadly missing these days. Industry contributions to our allies in Congress and relationship building with the many new legislators on the Hill—by their constituents—are at historic lows. Many new companies that enjoy the benefits of DSHEA lack the sense of commitment to our community. We have lost our activist mojo and sense of purpose. And we need to get it back if we aspire to be players at the national level on issues such as FDA funding and even-handed enforcement, reasonable legislative initiatives and increased research into integrative medicine and natural healing modalities.

What if new product introductions were always based on solid, defensible science?

Borrowed science? Inferred science? No science at all? Not acceptable if we are to grow as a responsible industry that truly has the health and best interests of our consumers in mind. And a solid scientific basis for new products, grounded in respect for natural health and healing, would go a long way toward a better, more respectful relationship with regulators, media and consumers.

Idealism? Unrealistic expectations? I think not. These are all necessary steps that industry must take if it is to thrive and ascend to its rightful place as a beacon of hope for consumers to achieve true health and wellbeing—that’s a “what if” I can get behind. WF


Published on, 2/27/15