Four major retailers are leading a new global initiative to improve supplement safety in every stage of the product life cycle and, ultimately, boost consumer confidence.
The Supplement Safety and Compliance Initiative (SSCI), facilitated by the Natural Products Association (NPA), launched this month accompanied by the announcement of the initiative’s leadership team—major retailers GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, Walmart and Whole Foods Market.
SSCI is modeled after the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), an industry-driven initiative that relies on the collaboration of food safety experts in retail, manufacturing and foodservice to improve food safety management systems and ensure consumers are confident in the safety of the food supply globally. Similar to GSFI, SSCI will focus on benchmarking to converge numerous, independent industry safety standards and determine equivalency between safety schemes.
“Consumer confidence is everything," said Dan Fabricant, Ph.D., CEO and executive director of NPA, in a phone interview. “You rarely hear of the food industry when there is a recall or a quality issue of the industry being unregulated. That sort of rhetoric undermines consumer confidence, so what we’ve put together here we think really will help keep consumer confidence … by making sure the industry is developing standards that meet the whole product life cycle."
He added, “Those standards don’t just get certified to, there’s information coming out of it. We’re learning."
Fabricant referred to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s probe into dietary supplements—nearly two years past—as an example of how this initiative can act as a tool to retailers, especially when situations arise that could undermine consumer confidence.
“Let’s rewind about two years ago," he said. “Eric Schneiderman sends his story to New York Times about four retailers selling products that he doesn’t think are of the right quality. It hits the retailers; they’re the gatekeepers. They’re the ones with customers contacting them either directly at brick and mortar locations or through the retailers’ websites or social media going, ‘What’s going on?’"
Benchmarking the various standards and certifications is a way of “putting some guardrails up to really make sure that when [retailers] are sourcing products, they know exactly what’s going on [and] the life cycle is communicated in a broader sense," he said.
Vitamin Shoppe named demand for transparency as one reason behind its interest in the initiative. “Consumers desire and value product transparency, and the Vitamin Shoppe is participating in this initiative to provide consumers with the information they want," the retailer said in a statement. “The health and safety of our customers, who place their trust in us when shopping at the Vitamin Shoppe, and the quality of the products we sell, are our top priorities."
Still in early stages, SSCI will need to assimilate its technical groups and benchmarking committees, among other developments, before moving forward with its objectives to:
- Reduce supplement safety risks, recalls and harms by delivering equivalence and convergence between effective supplement safety management systems.
- Develop core competencies and capacity building in supplement safety to create effective global systems.
- Drive global change through benchmarking of all standards—domestic and international.
- Provide unique stakeholder platform for collaboration, knowledge sharing and networking.
- Manage costs by eliminating redundancy in certification and improving operational efficiency.
- Increase the number of qualified auditors available to manufacturers, further increasing consumer safety.
- Address various standards available globally by allowing different schemes in the international community to benchmark their standard to one overarching standard.
- Design a tiered structure that accommodates the unique needs of small ingredient suppliers (i.e., organic, wild-crafted herbs), manufacturers and retailers.
According to Fabricant, NPA will act as a facilitator, or a third party, “to help move" the initiative. Referencing his former role as director of FDA’s Division of Dietary Supplement Programs, Fabricant said regulatory expertise from NPA will be an asset to SSCI.
Participation is a critical element in the success of SSCI, as well as the need for resources. But resources aren’t the end all, be all. “… There’s always a resource entanglement—you’re going to have to have resources to conduct pilot audits, to have certain expertise, to have statistics evaluated, what have you, but really it’s an attitude, it’s a ‘want to’ and I think the ‘want to’ is there."
Among the scopes for which SSCI will include benchmarked standards:
- International benchmarking of schemes;
- Farmed ingredients;
- Feed production;
- Pre-processing of plants;
- Production of (bio) chemicals;
- Production of packaging;
- Processing of plants perishable products;
- Processing of animals perishable products;
- Storage and distribution;
- Wild-crafted herbs;
- Matrices (liquid, powder, gummy, etc.); and
- Supplements (processing of finished product).