Before the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) became federal law 30 years ago this October, the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA) regularly terrorized natural products retailers, raiding their stores and pulling product off the shelf in an attempt to curb the industry’s free speech right to tell the public the health benefits of natural products. Fast-forward three decades and we’ve learned preserving that freedom requires constant vigilance. But with the products available in every mainstream retail channel besides the independent natural products retailers dedicated to defending them, does the industry still have the cohesiveness to fight the constant legislative battles to preserve access to our products? A new survey of U.S. independents highlights the challenges. Here, they share their insights and opinions.

“[It is] a high priority to be involved with groups that protect our freedom.”

Mid-Atlantic Retailer I: “I think it is incredibly important we pull together as an industry, and I don’t know if we are doing our share or joining the appropriate advocacy groups. I would put it as a high personal and financial priority to be involved with groups that protect our freedom. One of the things coming up now surfaced as a sideline, the supplement NAC [n-acetyl-cysteine], which was involved in a lot of COVID studies, and is effective for a lot of ailments. Big Pharma is trying to get it back as a controlled substance.

“My concern is that U.S. pharmaceutical companies have way too much power. In Europe, pharmaceutical advertisements are not allowed on TV, unlike here, where we are inundated. But this is a place I think it is really important we stand our ground. Now that retailers outside the industry are selling natural products, I’m not sure if the Amazons of the world stand shoulder to shoulder with independents. U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch was a longtime supporter and defender of our industry, along with Senator Tom Harkin, a Republican and Democrat, respectively. [Hatch and Harkin shepherded DSHEA through the 1994 Congress.] With Hatch’s passing and Harkin’s retirement, I’m not sure we have the same level of support in Congress.

“Even with these threats, though, we continue to have great success with our supplements sales, including our own private label brand.”

“It is a good time to make our independents’ voice known...”

California Retailer: “I am keeping abreast myself and am concerned with the professor from Harvard who got New York to pass the eating disorders law. I’m concerned because I feel one thing we are lacking now, and I’m not 100% on top of things, but when we lose a guy like [U.S. Senator] Orrin Hatch, and we have others, but are they the right ones? NPA [Washington, D.C.-based Natural Products Association] is active, and we’re forwarding warning emails. 

For a group to be effective, they have to do more than just cherry pick issues to make themselves look good.

“[California Governor] Gavin Newsom, I can’t believe he vetoed [State Assembly Bill 2022-1341], putting restrictions on under-18 purchases of whey protein and weight loss products. No, dietary supplements aren’t drugs. But it is back on the docket now [AB 2024-82], and I don’t know what he’ll do. He wants to make himself look good. I don’t think people are paying enough attention to it. When they put out legislation like this, we need to respond.

“Grassroots advocacy has been better by the independents. The big companies and mass merchandisers don’t seem to be helping as much with financing NPA or other industry support. They think, If it’s whey protein we can’t carry, we’ll recover. It won’t make a difference. I get it, they’re a business. What else do we have to fill the slot? Cheerios with nuts. [NPA CEO and President] Dan Fabricant is doing a great job. But before there was a lot more passion with independent store owner association members, but I feel like there’s not a big move for that among independents now. It makes us a sitting duck. We’ll lose some privileges. The New York legislation shows us how volatile it can be.

“I’ve been working with Positively Natural, a small trade group. They have a tiny trade show in October for independents only. We got involved two or three years ago and have been talking about getting more involved. I need to get reconnected to other independents. At the big shows, you see the big corporations and vendors that want to get into Whole Foods or Sprouts. They are interested in what the industry can do for them, rather than what they can do for the industry, as we were decades ago. That’s a huge issue we are dealing with. It is a good time to rise up and make our independents’ voice known again.”

“For the first time, we're sending an employee to D.C.”

Tennessee Retailer: “For grassroots, we do so much on social media. We promote advocacy petitions and stay abreast of industry warning emails. First, we encourage all 37 of our employees to respond. I don’t know if other stores are tapping into their employees. I have a radio show, Facebook, and use Instagram once in a while. If it is something like with Durbin [U.S. Senator Dick Durbin’s renewed effort to introduce mandatory premarket approval for new dietary ingredients], we did send out an email, and got a good response from customers who sent a petition to D.C. For the first time we’re sending an employee to D.C. for the annual industry Congressional advocacy event.

“Customers are surrounded by so much static; they aren’t aware unless they’re taught. We had the vaccine bus a couple of months ago parked across our parking lot. They discuss vaccine effects in an informed way. I think this was during the week, on a Thursday, and the turnout was far beyond what we’d expected. Attendees could sign a petition about fair laws on vaccines. The vaccine bus group has a good website on education, on how do we manage this, how to handle children, exemptions, that helps parents pursue this path. They showed a movie that brought tears to your eyes, not about vaccines, but about ‘Medicating Normal.’ We built awareness of the event in advance on our social media platform. That’s why turnout was so strong.

“I see some states are waking up, like here in Tennessee. Our Governor apparently had an epiphany after COVID. The state has recently passed laws against cloud seeding. None is allowed in the state. We’re also the only state allowing ivermectin OTC [over-the-counter sales]. And we just passed legislation that you can’t put mRNA substances into foods.

“My concerns with the New York bill, we still have a very positive and aggressive group of citizens in the country, but not without a store or other organizations to organize the platform. The rubber meets the road where they buy the products.”

“I’ve added an action alert center to our website.”

Southern Retailer I: “We haven’t heard a lot from our customers. A few are politically active, but most don’t bring it up. I have been getting my information from WholeFoods magazine, and I’m paying attention to NPA’s website, and (Alliance for Natural Health). I check their website frequently to see where we need to take action. We haven’t done flyers for customers, but I send customers links to ANH in emails I send out. I’ve added an action alert center to our website to keep everybody posted.

“Some of it is such a fine line. The new FDA NDI [new dietary ingredient] draft guidance seems wishy washy. It seems like we’re under threat, but what FDA finalized didn’t really make a difference. Ingredients like the NMN [nicotinamide mononucleotide], Amazon refused to sell because FDA was saying it was a drug. Now the homeopathic people have withdrawn all their nasal sprays and eye drops. FDA made them illegal or sent a warning letter. Our homeopathic companies sent us a letter to withdraw, so we’ve had to fill shelves with something else.

“Last year when [U.S. Senator Dick] Durbin was threatening to reintroduce premarket approval legislation, I did a podcast on our owner’s involvement with DSHEA in 1994. Back then, FDA had closed one store in our state in the runup to the legislation. They told the store to remove product off their shelves or we’re coming in tomorrow with guns, and that is what they did. We thought it was important to educate our customers on the history of defending access to natural products.”

“We’re more concerned with advocating for the environment...”

Mid-Atlantic Retailer II: “Advocacy is important to us. Most of our support goes to our regional association for sustainable agriculture as well as our local nature society, which operates a farm where we purchase produce for sale in the store. The Cornucopia Institute, the Non-GMO Project, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), and the Xerces Society, which advocates for pollinators like bees and butterflies, are some of the national organizations we partner with.

“We had a nice visit with the Deputy Director of The Cornucopia Institute, who came in to thank us for our support. We passed them onto [another nearby independent retailer]. Neither knew about the other. It is circular how all these associations can work together. 

“I read all the industry trade journals. With the issue of mislabeled-dose melatonin gummies, CRN is right on top of it.

“The lower level of our interest in advocacy for supplements today could be because, compared to 20 years ago, our sales have dropped from 20% to 8% of the total. Our prepared foods have gone up to 18%. But also, the internet is a factor. Our supplement sales are half what they were in 2018 and 2019. We are also very cautious about what we stock. People are asking for CBD soda. It is an unapproved food additive according to FDA. So, we keep a low profile with CBD products, and have not brought in any food that contains it in case someone [at FDA] wants to be a stickler about it. The CBD craze is over as far as I’m concerned.

“Advocacy activities like going to Lobby Day, which we did once in the ‘90s, meeting with our Senator’s staff during the runup to the passage of DSHEA, is not something we are doing today. We’re more concerned with advocating for the environment, organics, and non-GMO foods. Plus, no anti-supplement laws have been put in our state. The bottom line for us is, with our supplement sales declining to half of what we had, the handwriting is on the wall. We couldn’t be where we are today, with 500 customers per day, if we were a supplement-heavy store.”

“I feel almost a bit less empowered to enact change.”

Midwest Retailer I: “From a high-level view, and I hope I’m wrong, I don’t think our industry is as unified as it once was. I think this is a function of being a much larger industry today than we were in the ‘90s [when DSHEA passed]. Unity dissipates over time. I see the same in myself, so I’m not pointing fingers. I’m less proactive and protective of our rights than before. I feel almost a bit less empowered to enact change. And that’s a terrible feeling. I have three things to do today, so advocacy may get left off. It is hard to carve out the time to educate yourself, educate your team, make phone calls, and write letters to Congress. So, I’m concerned from that standpoint. There still are all the forces aligned against our industry as before; the old status quo factors in government.

“Rallying our customers is a similar challenge. It used to be that almost all our shoppers were those in need of addressing an immediate health concern. Many customers today are not in immediate need, but desire a better life, so may not feel as life-and-death urgency around some of the regulatory threats of restrictions to access. We are a little more self-focused than outwardly focused today. My health. With everything I have to do daily, it can be hard to take time to do the things I need to do to preserve our industry’s future.

“Many in the industry are in the same spot. Time is the issue. Where do I carve out time to address this concern? I’ve been head deep in my company’s structure and human resources. This is because of having a larger audience today. Thirty years ago it was, what, 5% of the population that ever thought of entering a health food store? There’s many more today that are interested in health that still don’t come to a natural foods store. You don’t have to explain what a supplement is today because of the better understanding of our industry’s products. Even with the wider availability of our products, our sales feel remarkably strong. I don’t see any weakness anywhere.”

“It would be good if we could get fired up again.”

Southern Retailer II: “I wish I had more perspective than I do. We are so short staffed. In the past, where we used to do a lot of letter writing, getting customers to write and call, we don’t do that now. However, we are concerned with [U.S. Senator] Dick Durbin, the bills he wants to pass. On the state level, there are no concerns for our industry that I know of.

“Also, we are concerned about the FDA’s efforts to take homeopathic products away from the industry one product at a time, as in the case of the homeopathic eye drops; doing it slowly, bit by bit, a step at a time. That there was a death or blindness from a certain brand that triggered FDA to pull the product, I personally don’t believe that. Homeopathics are a target.

“The new FDA commissioner, I think he is more focused on food safety. I do understand FDA is short staffed—which I think is good in some ways, and not so in others. Those are the main things I am concerned about at this time. I am not sure if there’s something being done about NAC [n-acetyl-cysteine] and other supplements FDA needs to look at. I think we’re in limbo on that.

“Codex [Codex Alimentarius Commission, the European standards, codes, and guidelines governing production and sale of nutritional supplements], I have been concerned about that for a number of years, that our voices are not heard. We seem to have little influence on outcomes there.

“I have been in the industry for 50 years, writing letters and calling Congress. I am concerned about anything happening with DSHEA. We do put a flier up on our front counter letting customers know what’s happening and asking them to contact their representatives and senators to voice their disapproval. I think there are going to be some consumers regretting that they didn’t stand up and listen.

“I think retailers are tired, struggling to compete with the big companies, and we see more and more of our products in the big box stores and online. It would be good if we could get fired up again. One thing that we are doing is tell people that Nestle and Clorox have bought all these companies, and now don’t have the heart that the original founders had. Our role for many years seems to be we introduce a company’s products, educate the consumer until the products are so well known that they then go to the mass market at lower prices than we can compete with.”

“We hear about a lot of efforts through INFRA.”

New England Retailer: “I’ve recently been advocating for better local transportation, affordable housing, safer communities, organic, climate policies, regenerative agriculture. We’re focused on both local and national non-profits. What have I put my name on? Petitions for climate organizations that work with the natural products industry. We hear about a lot of efforts through INFRA [Independent Natural Food Retailers Association].

“We’re not doing or hearing much on supplement advocacy. We’re not currently affiliated anymore with groups such as NPA [Natural Products Association]. We don’t do too much direct action/advocacy in the store around this topic. We do some on social media.”

“I have not given current advocacy the attention it deserves.”

Mountain West Retailer I: “I was disappointed with the way the industry rolled over to Big Pharma and government during COVID. This WHO [World Health Organization] pandemic treaty, where member countries are signing on to give up sovereignty. Who defines a pandemic? And what gives WHO the power to dictate how countries respond? That is a concern which I wrote about in our quarterly store circular. That’s what’s on my radar. We’re putting information on our social media channels. That’s the quickest turnaround for communicating with customers.

“We haven’t done any advocacy in-store. The DSHEA movement was a great movement, but I have not stayed as abreast of advocacy politics or given current-day advocacy the attention it deserves because I’ve been caught up in operations while riding a wave of momentum of industry growth. I’m not proud of that and would prefer to be more disciplined in devoting time to industry awareness and advocacy.”

“My customers aren’t into the grassroots anymore.”

New York Retailer: “Do I really sell any ephedra-type products? No. So the new [New York] legislation doesn’t really affect me. We don’t do a lot of sports nutrition. We don’t sell magic pills that don’t work to begin with. People are still buying L-carnitine. But customers don’t come in to talk about legislative action. It’s not the artsy-fartsy crowd anymore as it was 20 years ago. Maybe then people came in and discussed the issues.

“But health foods have become mainstream. My customers aren’t into the grassroots anymore. Now, they’re worried about their parking meters expiring and don’t chit-chat too much about that stuff. But I agree with the regulations. Fourteen-year-olds shouldn’t be buying ephedra-based products. I need to lose 20 pounds by next week, I’ll take four pills. That’s why I got out of that stuff. We sell more family-oriented products.”

“I’m focusing on educating customers on nutrition.”

Mid-Atlantic Retailer IV: “With important brands like American Health, Solgar, and New Chapter being acquired, we are trying but can’t get product now. As far as the age restrictions legislation in New York, [I believe] some sports nutrition products should be restricted because of controversial ingredients.

“I’m focusing on educating customers on nutrition. You have to be careful [with] what you are buying and stocking in the store…So, I’ve tried to taper down on sports medicine, and don’t deal with purely sports-medicine oriented companies. Weightlifters reading muscle magazines want to compete tomorrow. But it takes years to build the body up. If you take steroids to speed it up, you can have an enlarged heart and wind up in the hospital. So, I only handle the few things I know are good. I play it safe, and don’t need a sale that bad. I have over 800 companies I deal with, and I don’t deal with email. I tell them, just contact me on your regular monthly cycle, or whatever it is.

“The recent FDA ban of all eyedrops, like the homeopathic Similasan, was an overreaction. It is the junk products being sold in convenience stores that caused the problem. We’re fighting the ban. But they look for this kind of opportunity to damage our clean industry. We need education, and we’re not getting it from our government because they don’t want us to know.”

“I think they’re out to get us, and they will.”

Mid-Atlantic Retailer III: “I feel like an expatriate. Grassroots, I don’t know. It’s not like DSHEA, in the early ‘90s, when we went to Washington to advocate. I think they’re out to get us and they will. I read some articles about the New York and New Jersey legislative threats, but I guess it hasn’t impacted me enough to do something. I’m disillusioned with this industry. It’s so corporate now and you’re battling all the resellers, too. We had to raise our margins and take ‘Discount’ out of the original name of the store. We’re doing okay though. We’re still $5 million, with more than half our business online…

“It’s tough out there, I feel I can’t last too much longer in this thing and am glad I’m not getting into it at a young age. I’m not optimistic, but it could be me just being an old man. Get off my lawn! I miss the Let’s go get some granola and bag our own kind of days.”

“There’s always been pending [anti-supplement] legislation.”

New Jersey Retailer: “I’m not aware of what is going on in New Jersey recently. We’ve been in business for over 40 years. There’s always been pending legislation prohibiting vitamins and supplements. A lot has come and gone. The industry is more mainstream than back in the day. More people are interested in organic foods and supplements, so instead of just the hippies or older Europeans interested in products like old-fashioned oats, now so many more parents want healthy foods for their kids."

“We’re doing absolutely nothing with advocacy.”

Mountain West Retailer II: “We’re doing absolutely nothing with advocacy right now. We haven’t started any campaigns. I’ve had my head buried with other stuff. We are in a remote part of our state, which is an underserved, Walmart-style community. Our customers are not asking us anything about any threats to our freedoms.”

“We don’t do a lot of advocacy because it hasn’t impacted us.”

GettyImages-1217309539-min.jpgMidwest Retailer II: “We are in a part of the country that doesn’t seem to have the regulatory nitty gritty pressure as in New York. Our state laws aren’t adversarial, so we don’t feel impacted, and customers don’t bring it up. We watch our vendors. We work with regenerative farming suppliers, but don’t do a lot of advocacy because it hasn’t impacted us. CBD is one area where we are watching. We just got a call the other day from our credit card processing company telling us our bank is dropping us in two weeks, and we want to switch your bank."

“I’m not making time to keep up with the issues.”

Midwest Retailer III: “I’m finding our customers are not as involved in or informed about advocacy as they have been in the past. Our store and our customers were so involved in helping to pass DSHEA back in 1994 and efforts were so coordinated between manufacturers and retailers. I don’t see that today. We’re so busy with the day to day operations that I’m not making time to keep up with the issues. I rely on our industry organizations like INFRA (Independent Natural Foods Retailer Association), NPA (Natural Products Association) and MAHO (Mid-American Health Organization), to keep their ears to the ground and keep us informed.”

“What can I do? I’m just one guy.”

Mountain West Retailer III: “We’ve always been low key. We look at what’s going on and support suppliers like Natural Factors, Ancient Nutrition, and regenerative farming. That’s within the industry. Outside the industry it’s a cesspool. We regulate quality in this country, but we buy our stuff from China. They don’t regulate. Nobody has to do these things around the world.

“I try to do my part and set an example. My dollars go to my people, and once in a while to non-profits. When it comes down to it, what can I do? I’m just one guy. I don’t like what I’m seeing. Spending money locally is the best we can do. Does Amazon do anything to help your community?"

“It’s not like we get inundated with advocacy info...”

Mid-Atlantic Retailer IV: “On a state level, there’s nothing I’m aware of. I get hemp industry updates, and the like. It’s not like it used to be. I haven’t even thought of it. We keep our eyes and ears open. I feel years ago it was a lot more proactive. Getting the phone numbers for the representatives. We had tables out where people could phone it in. And fill out petitions that we would mail in.

“There’s nothing like that going on now. Is it apathy? Let’s face it. What’s gone on in New York, I can’t imagine having legislation like that go through 20 or 25 years ago. Customers are not bringing it up. We try to pass out as much information as we can when we have it available. It’s not like we get inundated with advocacy information to hand out. It seems like the pipeline is so thin.”

“We are only effective when the whole industry rallies.”

West Coast Retailer: “Most of my customers aren’t aware of any of the legislative threats. Unlike during the passage of DSHEA, today many young and new people in the industry don’t understand the consequences for business and consumer choice. We are only effective when the whole industry rallies. It’s not just calling your congressman. That was not what got DSHEA passed. It has to be a concerted effort.

“When consumers think their right to choose is threatened, like the product blackout we created in 1994 which showed them what they’ll not have access to, that’s when you’ll see change. You almost need to create a panic. But since those days, [industry trade associations have] lost a lot of ground. Back then, vitamin companies were all-in on passing DSHEA, putting advocacy information in every box they shipped to retailers. And it should be every vitamin company affected by this.

“Distributors also need to educate their workforce to pass the message onto retailers, Would you like me to show you how to set up a table? And we need one central place to go for all the information. At the time, we had Citizens for Health, AHPA (American Herbal Products Association), Nature’s Way, Threshold, and others providing information and doing samples of the whole blackout kit. A picture is worth a thousand words. They were all in on it, with the same exact message. That is where we lose something.

“This past March at [Natural Products] Expo West, AHPA hosted a seminar, ‘DSHEA and the Defense of Health Freedom’, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of DSHEA passing. Speakers included industry icons Sandy Gooch, Loren Israelsen, and others, who were there at the time. Learning about the serious threats to our industry is a sobering reminder of how determined our adversaries were and continue to be today.” [Presentation link: AHPA: DSHEA and the Defense of Health Freedom]

A Whole-of-Industry Approach

A common concern voiced by independent retailers is the lack of a coordinated effort by the entire industry to preserve access to natural products; from manufacturers and brands to retailers in multiple channels including the internet, to the industry associations responsible for advocacy. Without a whole-of-industry approach, as we can see from increasing attacks on single nutrients and homeopathics, we may die a death of a thousand cuts, one product at a time. As Ben Franklin said of the colonies needing to unify to win the Revolutionary War, “We must all hang together, or we will all hang separately.” WF