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10 Years of Fishy Business

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by Adam Ismail -

2017 marks the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). At the time, in 2006, many industry observers questioned why a group like GOED was needed, and some even felt that we would fail within a couple years. In fact, people still tell me such things in conversations at trade shows. Aside from the awkward conversation when somebody tells you they see no value in your work, it usually makes me reflect on why our segment of the industry has been able to support our organization 10 ten years. Like any organization, we have made, but these experiences have also taught us a lot. I hope we have made progress toward our vision of consumers getting sufficient amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in their diet.

One key thing we learned is that there is only one path our industry should take, and that is the high road. As an industry, we are not trying simply to sell more product at this moment; we are trying to build a long-term, sustainable business focused on helping the consumer. I know a casual skeptic would say that our industry is just trying to make money. I disagree. So many people in the omega-3 world are here—and don’t leave—because they believe in what they are doing, and care about ultimately improving public health.

Building a long-term business means we need to earn credibility with consumers, and the only way to do that is to focus on transparency and quality. It means we need to invest in further science, make high-quality products, police our own industry, and educate consumers and our own industry alike. Our critics are idealistic and firebrand in their fervor, accusing us of misleading consumers when we say omega-3s support heart health or brain health, making rancid oils that harm consumers, having unregulated products and more. We have seen over the last 10 years that the only way to win against this is to take the high road. This means acknowledging gaps in science when we explain the positive findings, investigating poor quality allegations and funding studies that help spell out the truth about product spoilage. Personally, I think this applies to whatever challenges any industry faces; taking the high road is the only strategy that will win in the long run.

In the world in which we live today, we have also seen that being static will not help long-term growth because the standards consumers hold us to increase every year. We can debate whether these increasingly difficult hurdles are justified, but we cannot deny that consumers will continue to demand the strictest standards and that there is little companies can do other than adapt. When an industry adapts, it needs to show that it is owning the issue rather than just placating consumers. We have to recognize that consumers are educated. Brands need to take responsibility for the solution, or consumers will be skeptical. We see this with the GOED Voluntary Monograph product quality standard. Even though it was originally drafted over 12 years ago, some companies adamantly believe we do not need to update beyond these limits, even though consumers have continued to demand further advances in quality.

In the nutrition world, science and industry are under fire constantly. One other lesson we have learned is that the “coopetition" models seem to work best. When industry competitors come together to solve problems facing their entire sector, it allows them to free up internal resources to focus on their business. Since GOED was started, multiple ingredient categories have come to us and asked us to help them form similar groups.  These efforts fail when companies are unwilling to put their pride aside and work collaboratively with competitors to solve problems. Too often I see companies that think they have the only valid method to measure quality, or that their competitors’ products are subpar, or even that there is no need to work together because their competitors are weak and will disappear. However, when GOED ran a national advertising campaign for the omega-3 industry in 2015, companies at every sector of the value chain came together to fund it. No single company was large enough to fund an initiative like this on its own, even though our sector is one of the largest in the nutrition industry.

So many people in this industry that are passionate about improving public health, and we also need to work harder to hold ourselves to this high standard. This means knowing the science better than the critics, being proactive about ensuring product quality is sufficient—before the testing starts—and holding fellow companies accountable for the claims they make to ensure they are not misleading. This is the model GOED’s founders set up for our organization when they gave us the mandate of simultaneously educating consumers about omega-3s and helping the industry make high-quality products consumers can trust.

I know that when I reflect on what GOED has learned in the last 10 years—taking the high road, constantly improving, encouraging coopetition, and holding ourselves to the most rigorous standards—I sound like a naive business school graduate who has not entered the real world. However, I can point to specific examples where we have repeatedly observed these tactics build long-term success for an industry, and I think that if everyone thought about their own sectors of the nutrition industry, they would see something similar.

Adam Ismail has served as the executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) since 2007. He oversees all organizational development for new and existing members. Ismail has led GOED to experience a seven-fold growth in its membership and budget, worked on the founding of an international learning consortium based at Purdue University, and spearheaded overturning a ban on fish oil imports in Europe. Ismail’s previous experience includes product development for Cargill Inc.’s omega-3 line and several years as a senior consultant for both Health Strategy Consulting and Health Business Partners. In addition to his work experience, Ismail has served the industry as chairman of the NPIcenter advisory board and as a contributing editor for Nutraceuticals World. He holds an MBA from the University of Navarra’s IESE Business School (Barcelona, Spain) and a BSBA from Boston University’s School of Management.

 

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