Should 2009 be forgot and never brought to mind, like the days of Auld Lang Syne? Sure, some hard-hit segments of the retail industry would love to bid an emphatic farewell to 2009 and never look back. In fact, the same tenuous economic climate, combined with other factors, may have bred a favorable atmosphere for natural products sales. But, take note: this isn’t a time for complacency, as storm clouds looming on the horizon could be ready to break over the industry.

We’ve Got Staying Power 

Even in the toughest of times, our industry can shine—and several 2009 studies prove it.

• Data from a Mambo Sprouts survey indicated that despite the economy, 87% of shoppers were unwilling to change their organic purchasing habits.

• The 2009 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study (sponsored by the Organic Trade Association) found 31% of U.S. families bought more organic foods this year than last year.

• An article in The New York Times highlighted the fact that many shoppers were turning to supplements as a cost-effective way to stay healthy and avoid buying expensive pharmaceutical drugs.

• Various sources indicated an 8–10% increase in supplements buying.

Clearly, consumers are taking control of their own health and see diet (and dietary supplements) as an important way to do so. The data collected for this month’s WholeFoods Magazine Retailer Survey (p. 20) corroborates this conclusion. While not every store had a banner year, the respondents to this year’s survey reported increased sales, higher sales per square foot and far more customers per day. These are remarkable data given the challenges retailers across all industries faced.

Dipping a Tentative Toe into 2010 Waters
While we applaud the 2009 successes of the industry, I (and I suspect many of you) can’t help but feel we should do so carefully—possibly while looking over our shoulders.

Regulatory storms are brewing that could affect how and what the dietary supplements industry sells. The sports supplements industry experienced this already in the form of the public’s concerns that FDA can’t control what “really” is in their supplements. On a different battleground, Richard Passwater, Ph.D., interviewed attorney Jonathan Emord in the past two issues about FDA’s new (and probably biased) stance on appropriate qualified health claims for dietary supplements. We report this month on the Food Safety Bill, which to date, includes no exemption for dietary supplements (p. 13). Without one, the bill could be used to attack supplements of all kinds.

And who can forget the glorious mainstream media, who have taken to portraying DSHEA as the rope that ties the hands of FDA from properly regulating dietary supplements. The Act, they say, offers a loophole for wily supplement makers to wriggle out of their obligation to offer safe, effective products. Even an editorial published in an esteemed medical journal said taking dietary supplements is equivalent to playing Russian roulette with your health.

I wish our industry could simply shrug off these articles, write our own responses and hold our heads high as we offer consumers alternatives for maintaining good health. But these ideas may be seeping into the lawmaking minds on Capitol Hill and we could soon be fighting additional, unwarranted legislation.

So as we set our New Year’s resolutions, let’s all promise to be outspoken about the importance of offering natural/organic health products. Let’s speak out in our stores, let’s comment on pending legislation, let’s support those who bring lawsuits against the FDA when it makes a bad judgment, and most of all, let’s not be shy about telling our elected officials to turn down legislation that jeopardizes supplement sales.

Our shoppers (through their purchases) have spoken about what’s important to them. Now, it’s our turn. WF


Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2009