Miscalculating the growing number and commitment of dietary supplement consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stretched too far when it announced its proposed rules for the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1991. Those rules and FDA’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would have put many of the items sold in natural food stores under prescription and limited the potency of others.

A group of Utah manufacturers and my Health Forum of Utah—representing retailers, consumers and grassroots—joined forces to prepare language for a bill to hedge FDA’s efforts then and in the future to enact rules that would deny access to dietary supplements and information about those products to consumers.

Laying the Groundwork for DSHEA
I took the original bill, dubbed the Health Freedom Act, to Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and asked him to sponsor it in Congress. Senator Hatch, an enthusiastic consumer of dietary supplements, read the brief bill and agreed on the spot to introduce it—“Now!” he told his aide—which he did in May 1992. And that characterized—from the first moment that he agreed to lead the charge to protect dietary supplements—the commitment he had to preserving access by consumers to our products. I spoke with him many times over the next two years, and he never wavered in his efforts, or in the charge he made to me to get the public support he would need to get the bill passed.

As president of the Rocky Mountain Nutritional Foods Association (RMNFA), I made a presentation in July to the National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA) board members, explaining the bill and making the motion for NNFA to officially support it. The board unanimously voted to do so, and the industry’s support—along with that of other citizens’ groups such as Citizens for Health (CFH)—began an almost unprecedented grassroots effort that resulted in more contacts with Congress on this bill than on any issue in history other than the Vietnam War.

Unable in such a short time to get the Health Freedom Act through Congress before it adjourned, Senator Hatch—in a brilliant move—was able in the waning days of that session to attach to another bill an amendment that imposed a moratorium on FDA’s regulations.

An expanded version of the bill, now called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), was immediately introduced in the new Congress in 1993. For the first time, dietary supplements were statutorily defined and would be responsibly and reasonably regulated. Not only would consumers have access to dietary supplements, but also to truthful and non-misleading information about those products.

The Road to Capitol Hill
During the next two years, grassroots support and response grew. Retailers across the nation observed a national “blackout” day when all dietary supplements were draped or cordoned off in black and not sold. Senator Hatch visited the Salt Lake City Good Earth Natural Foods store where he and I described before every TV camera in the state why we were not selling products that day—and why consumers needed DSHEA.

  Rae Howard and her husband Ken, cofounders of Good Earth Natural Foods, in 2009.

Both the retail and the supply side of NNFA promoted massive letter writing campaigns. But one consumer, Rosemary Minervini, a dental hygienist from Kansas City, was so concerned that her supplements might not be available if DSHEA wasn’t passed, that she decided to do more than write a letter. She took a leave from her job for three months and traveled at her own expense through several states holding meetings in health food stores on the impact that the FDA regs would have on people’s access to the products they wanted.

Rosemary’s incredible action and contribution is an example of the difference that one informed, dedicated person can make. Multiplied hundreds of thousands of times, grassroots citizen involvement was one of the key factors for the passage of DSHEA. The history of DSHEA would not be complete without the story of Rosemary Minervini as an example of the impact that an average informed and motivated citizen can have— even in a huge, national political arena.

Various highly effective regional groups were organized. Senator Hatch appeared on national television—including Larry King Live—announcing FDA’s irrationality and irresponsibility in delaying the approval of information to the public about the beneficial and preventive role of dietary supplements, highlighting the effect of folic acid in preventing neural tube defects while hundreds of babies each year were born with spina bifida. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), an enthusiastic supplement user, came on board as a co-sponsor of DSHEA, bringing Democrat votes with him.

Finally, following several day-and-night, popcorn-diet, marathon language-compromising sessions with FDA and other groups, as well as Senator Hatch’s huge investment of political capital as Chairman of the Senate’s powerful judge-approving Judicial Committee, DSHEA passed in the Senate in October 1994 at midnight. Senator Hatch left the floor of the Senate and called me—now President of NNFA—to inform me of the landmark event.

The Situation Today
Senator Hatch often said during those months as DSHEA moved through the political process that over 100 million Americans used dietary supplements. That figure has expanded greatly since 1994. In those days, Dr. Dean Edell gave the recipe for “homeopathic chicken soup” over national radio as beginning with boiling “the shadow of a chicken.” Now television, radio and glossy magazine ads by major pharmaceutical companies promote homeopathic remedies. They, as well as dietary supplements and herbs, are part of our common healthcare language.

With the Good Earth stores and I so heavily involved in DSHEA—and in other legislative initiatives as well, such as licensing for naturopathic physicians, protecting the right of those in our industry to provide nutritional counseling, expanding access to healthcare treatments and options for both providers and patients in Utah’s medical code and in administrative rules, etc.—a sense of civic and community responsibility has been established in our stores. The Good Earth Natural Food Markets are known and respected, and are looked to as a source for information and direction because of the decades of political activity that the stores and I have been involved in.

Three major concerns remain, however, for the natural products industry today.

FDA bias. First—and most people are not aware of this—the FDA still has a strong bias against the industry, its products and alternative medicine. Although their methods have changed, their basic agenda has not. They will allow nothing for the industry that they are not forced to allow. Although not so bold and dramatic as in the past, their bias is reflected in their ongoing rule-making efforts.

This bias is compounded by FDA’s real lack of understanding of our industry and what “natural” and “whole” really mean. Since DSHEA, the industry and consumer groups have had to mount major efforts periodically to hold onto what we have gained, as well as make some advances.

Mainstreaming of natural medicine. The second major concern—as strange as it may seem—has resulted from the “mainstreaming” of alternative or natural medicine. As more and more doctors are responding to consumers’ demands for medicinal products with fewer side effects, they have turned to the use of supplements, herbs and homeopathic remedies. This has greatly benefitted patients, but because most medical doctors do not understand—and have not been trained to understand—the concept of natural healing and wholeness, two unfortunate things are happening.

First, unsupported by other lifestyle changes, the effectiveness of herbs or supplements—used as substitutes for side effect-producing prescription drugs—is often limited. Frequently, the mentality is still to use some kind of “magic bullet” to relieve symptoms without addressing the causes of disease. Many are just wanting a more natural “bullet.”

And secondly, tried and thus sometimes found wanting in their effects, herbs and other supplements are then discounted as ineffective. “I tried that and it didn’t work.” Sadly, this precludes further efforts in something that in a holistic context might have been highly effective.

The wrong motivation. The third major challenge confronting the industry today arises out of our popularity and growth as an industry. In the past, the suppliers and retailers of natural products were very frequently first consumers of natural products themselves. They had their own personal history and experiences in healing to tell. This brought a passion and dedication to the industry that cannot be matched—as important as it is to stay in business—by a primary interest in the bottom line of a profit and loss statement.

But as our industry has become more and more “mainstream,” we have also become more profitable, attracting many to the industry entirely for economic reasons. We have historically existed to support a lifestyle that is highly personal and focused in its humane and humanitarian purposes. But many companies and retailers today are in the business only to make money. They do not promote, nor do they often represent personally, a healthy, wholesome lifestyle. Lacking that, they also lack the personal involvement and focus that historically have been bedrock for our industry. The results of that are diminished effectiveness—often physically, sometimes economically, and almost always politically.

The years since DSHEA have been characterized by mergers and the creation of huge conglomerates. Some pioneer companies are now owned by billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies. One of the largest distributors of natural food products in the country is owned by PepsiCo. This kind of business profile tends to separate the provider of the products from the consumer of the products, with all that that entails.

Our Future
Our future as an industry, as we have known it, largely depends on our effectiveness in avoiding these “side-effects” of the mainstreaming of our industry, and also holding our own politically with Congress and with the FDA, as well as with our state legislatures and assemblies. We cannot afford to be so intent and involved in staying in business that we forget who and what keep us in business—and why we are in business.

Although DSHEA has helped create a stimulating and effective business environment, and consumers of our products who are wonderfully inquiring and knowledgeable—both of which promote, even require, greater maturity, competency and professionalism on our part—in some ways it is more difficult for independent retailers to compete in our broader-based marketplace today, as compared with the more focused one prior to DSHEA. The effort to do so, and to capitalize on the expanded interest in our products, has understandably resulted in “crossover” stores that appeal to the dabbler as well as to the serious shopper. Although it sometimes means some compromises in products, changes in advertising and expansion of inventory in order for smaller stores to compete, it does not have to mean—and hopefully will not mean for most—a compromise in focus, philosophy, passion and personal service.

These are the roots of the natural health/natural products movement. They are the traditions passed down to us over time from the Founding Fathers in our industry. Focus on individuals and on our purpose for being; Philosophy of truth and quality and honesty, always; Passion in making a difference, one individual at a time; and Personal Service, the Golden Rule, day by day, every day. These describe what we do best. They are dear to us. And if we—the independent retailers—are to survive and serve, this is what we must remember. And do. WF

Rae Howard was the cofounder of Good Earth Natural Foods, with five locations in Utah. This piece was completed shortly before her passing in early February.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, March 2014