1. Optimize quality control amid COVID-triggered supply chain challenges
2020 was a record-breaking year for supplement sales. The experts presenting at “Top Trends in a Post-Pandemic Age: State of the Health & Nutrition Industry” at SupplySide East in August told the tale in numbers: The U.S. saw a 14.5% increase in sales to $55.75 billion, up from $48.67 billion in 2019, Bill Giebler, Content & Insights Director, Nutrition Business Journal, told attendees. And Dan Harari, VP of Business Development at ClearCut Analytics, reported that Vitamin, Mineral, and Supplement (VMS) saw 54% year-over-year growth on Amazon.

Immune-related products had a high growth rate (Harari pointed to zinc, black currant, melatonin, vitamin D, and ashwagandha among the big gainers). And while that led to significant opportunities, it also caused significant problems that continue to impact the industry. Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs, sums it up: “As we move into 2022 and reflect upon what we have learned from the last, longest two years ever, it is abundantly clear that regardless of whatever your views on current events may be, immune health is not just another buzz phrase. Even folks who have historically ‘poo pooed’ the value of dietary supplements are now leaning towards taking supplements to bolster their health. And stress support supplements are not far behind the immune category in sales growth. We are all reaching for help in some way or another. The new consumers using our industry’s products and veteran consumers taking more supplements than they used to are challenging the already-challenged supply chain of high-quality ingredients. I once again remind colleagues that when supply chains are challenged, adulteration will increase as well, so you better get your herbs checked.”

Breaking down the top concerns, Sandra Lee, CEO, NJ Labs, notes: “We live in a time where due to the pandemic, just about every industry has experienced supply chain issues. This has resulted in companies being forced to source materials from new suppliers and vendors to keep up with market demand. As a result, opportunistic new companies are now popping up. These companies tend to be inexperienced, and often rush the processes, producing products that may end up containing adulterated materials and ingredients. They also tend to purchase from unknown sources, which in turn compounds quality issues. To make matters worse, most are not even audited by a regulatory body to ensure all the right quality systems are established and in place.”

This, Lee stresses, makes a case for using an independent laboratory that focuses on quality and not just performing testing to get the results out-the-door. “The time invested partnering with the right independent laboratory can have long-term, positive effects for the business. An independent laboratory with the right quality management system should be unbiased, clear in methodology and traceable. Laboratories that have a foundation based on quality are better positioned in identifying and addressing issues with compromised supplies.”

To that, Sudberg adds, “While all of us handle the challenges of doing business in a pandemic, the value of solid relationships has been underscored time and again, which includes having a good relationship with a first-rate lab. They should be an extension of your already stellar quality system, and you might as well also make them an extension of the marketing message so the consumers know they can trust that your product is safe and effective in these trying times.” (More on that below.)

There are many laboratories to choose from, Lee notes,  but they all can follow different types of standards. “At NJ Labs, we follow USP and CGMP, which are the most stringent guidelines in quality and testing. Although natural products or brands are more wholesome and not processed, they could still harbor unknown impurities from the soil they are grown-in, like lead for example. NJ Labs believes in testing food products utilizing more sensitive methods and advanced instrumentation to ensure the results are more accurate and reliable. Under the heavy influence of the FDA, NJ Labs understands impurities testing as well as the importance of using product specific methods. Natural brands need to ensure their products are safe for consumers, so screening for impurities such as heavy metals and microbial contaminants are some key services we offer.”

At Alkemist Labs, Sudberg says, the focus is on plants. “We have been the gatekeepers of quality for botanicals, ensuring Identity and Potency for nearly 25 years. Due to an overwhelming flood of requests from our customers to expand our services to include purity testing, in 2022 we are on track to begin offering testing for metals, pesticides, residual solvents, and other contaminants. We also offer microbial analysis to close the loop on what a brand needs to do to be sure they are selling a safe and effective herbal product.”

  1. Prepare for retailer quality standards
Retailer Compliance Standards have been a major topic of discussion in recent months. Industry players tackled the topic at ACI/CRN’s 9th Annual Legal, Regulatory & Compliance Forum on Dietary Supplements in June. As Carlos Lopez, VP, General Counsel, The Vitamin Shoppe, explained at that event, a major driving force behind the creation of quality standards is consumer trust. “Consumers can read an op-ed in the New York Times saying that the industry isn’t regulated, so they don’t feel safe,” he explained. “And retailers can’t really write an op-ed ourselves, explaining why that’s not true, but we can appeal to customer emotions—we can say, hey, we vetted these products, we have proof that what’s on the label is in the bottle.”

What’s more, says David Trosin, Managing Director of Health Sciences Certification at NSF International: “According to our research, consumers not only expect retailers to test products for safety, they also want them to inspect manufacturing facilities for compliance with good manufacturing practices. We envision a future when most major retailers will require brands to show proof of product quality in some form or another. You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s ahead for dietary supplement brands sold at major retailers. Almost every major retailer is discussing new quality requirements for supplements.”

Several retailers and online platforms are already requiring supplement brands to show proof of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance and independent ingredient testing before they will allow products to be sold on their shelves, Trosin notes. “Think Amazon and CVS Health. Both of these retailers require brands and manufacturers to meet specific levels of quality assurance. I expect we’ll see additional retailers and online platforms follow suit in the near future.”

Trosin’s vision: “My hope for the next step is that retailers would work together to decide on a harmonized approach to testing. This would allow the brands to satisfy the retailer and consumer expectations without repetitious effort and cost. I’m encouraged to see retailers and brands working together to establish retail requirements to protect consumers and differentiate quality products in the marketplace. This may be a paradigm shift for dietary supplement manufacturers, but it also presents a unique opportunity for brands to capitalize on the new requirements. Global retailers are taking steps to increase consumer confidence and create a competitive advantage. Supplement brands should do the same. Manufacturers and brands should start preparing to provide proof of GMP compliance and independent lab testing or product certification.”

Independent labs can help. At NSF, Trosin says, “In addition to independent lab testing and manufacturing facility GMP audits, NSF International offers a number of different certification solutions for brands and manufacturers of dietary supplements. Brands can choose independent certification of a finished product to a recognized dietary supplement standard, such as NSF/ANSI 173: the American National Standard for Dietary Supplements. Product certification to NSF/ANSI 173 starts with the foundation of facility certification to the NSF/ANSI 455-2 standard. From there, product formulation and label claims are reviewed to determine compliance with the standard and laboratory tests are performed to identify contaminants like heavy metals, pesticides and microbiological contamination. Independent certification of individual products can also be a powerful marketing tool.”

Plus, Trosin says, “A few years ago, NSF International’s standards development organization convened a balanced committee of supplement industry representatives, public health officials, regulators and consumer interest groups to develop NSF/ANSI 455-2, a consensus American National Standard for dietary supplement GMPs. Independent certification of your manufacturing facility to the NSF/ANSI 455-2 GMP Audit Standard for Dietary Supplements is widely accepted to prove GMP compliance.”

Many brands and manufacturers are joining the Global Retailer & Manufacturer Alliance (GRMA), Trosin adds, which includes certification to the NSF/ANSI 455-2 GMP Audit Standard for Dietary Supplements. “If retail is an important part of your business model, then membership in the GRMA probably makes sense and it may even open doors to new relationships with retailers.”

  1. Meet transparency expectations
“Beyond eco-sustainability and supply chain verification which is fraught with quality control and transparency issues, testing-based certifications provide consumers the utmost confidence by batch number and product sku,” says William Rowe, President and CEO of Nutrasource. “Brands can point to specific test results as part of their overall quality program and commitment to excellence. Consumers also have tools to fact check a brand’s quality claims like never before, resulting in self-certification being exposed. Third-party provides a strong additional layer of confidence and support to the brand and the consumer. Testing focuses not only on what comes in the factory, but what goes out the other end, which is what the consumer is feeding themselves and their family and pets.”

To help brands: “Nutrasource is in the claims substantiation business in the areas of testing, certifications and clinical research,” says Rowe. “Our four current certifications are in marine oils, (IFOS), non-GMO, (IGEN), probiotics (IPRO) and confirming lack of THC in CBD products (ICAP), some of which are authorized by key retailers within certain frameworks. Our service platform is a concierge service that provides the necessary third party support for brands and co-marketing opportunities to raise awareness and stick out in the crowd by showcasing premium quality. We organize testing, stability programs, as well as marketing and health claims. From early stage companies to global multinationals, product innovation and novelty remains a key component of product development and we deliver this for our clients consistently.”

Another option that lets consumers see the details: “Given that consumer expectations of transparency continue to grow,” Alkemist’s Sudberg says, “we have developed a version of our test result reporting, called a Certificate of Analysis (C of A), that is somewhat simplified for sharing with people who don’t have a background in quality control or chemistry. We’re seeing more companies make this data available to consumers, so that’s something retailers should be asking about when evaluating what brands to stock. These days, it’s not enough to just say you sell quality products; you should offer evidence to support that claim.”WF