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American Botanical Council founder discusses search for director

Photo courtesy of American Botanical Council American Botanical Council
Headquarters of American Botanical Council

Mark Blumenthal revealed several months ago that the organization he founded in 1988, the American Botanical Council (ABC), was searching for a new executive director.

However, he dispelled any notion that ABC’s succession plan means he intends to retire.

“We don’t use the R word at ABC,” Blumenthal told Natural Products Insider in October.

In an open letter sent in April to ABC members and the herbal community, Blumenthal stated ABC is seeking a new executive director “who will help direct, manage and lead ABC as it continues to provide and expand its unique nonprofit research and educational mission, publications and programs now and into the future.”

The letter explained ABC’s board of trustees had developed a succession plan since Blumenthal was nearing the age of 75.

“However, we have decided to cleave off the “ion” and call this the Success Plan,” he wrote. “We believe it more clearly conveys the reality of our vision for this necessary and, frankly, exciting process especially since I will continue to stay passionately engaged with ABC.”

In an interview at SupplySide West in October, Blumenthal explained ABC is searching for a man or woman knowledgeable about botanical medicine with leadership skills and a background in science.

In a follow-up email in December, Blumenthal said his organization is currently looking for a director who would be mentored for a period of time by him and ABC’s leadership team before moving into the executive director position.

The leadership team includes: Stefan Gafner, Ph.D., technical director of the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP); Cecelia Thompson, finance director; Gayle Engels, special projects and education director; Denise Meikel, development director; and Matt Magruder, art director.

Blumenthal plans to remain active at ABC even when the executive director position is filled.

“I still love what I do,” he said in the interview. “I consider it part of my lifestyle, not a job, and as long as there’s work that I find compelling and relevant for this community, I plan on staying with it—with the assistance hopefully of a dynamic new director to help move the organization forward.”

Mark Blumenthal 2021

During an interview at SupplySide West, Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council (ABC) donned his trademark Hawaiian shirt and discussed the past and future of his organization.

HerbalGram, adulteration program

Asked about ABC’s “legacy,” Blumenthal emphasized the organization is still in the process of creating what he hopes will be considered a legacy at some point. He nonetheless is proud of ABC’s work in “increasing the quantity and the quality of the conversation” related to such topics as botanical medicine and herbal dietary supplements.

Blumenthal launched HerbalGram, a peer-reviewed quarterly journal, as a newsletter about 38 years ago. He said he founded ABC to transform HerbalGram from a newsletter into “a scientific American-style publication” with such attributes as credibility and provocative photography, “and we’ve done that.”

Blumenthal fondly recalls a specific compliment from an ABC member one holiday season. “He said, ‘My wife and I always recycle all of our magazines except for 2: National Geographic and HerbalGram,’” Blumenthal reflected. Issues of HerbalGram, he added, are “keepers and they don’t grow old.”

Among ABC’s achievements is its work highlighting issues to help improve the quality of the global herbal marketplace. Blumenthal recalled speaking to friends and colleagues more than a decade ago about concerns over adulteration and fraud and how such adulteration shows up in herbal products in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In 2011, ABC and two other organizations—the American Herbal Pharmacopeia (AHP) and University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research—created the BAPP, or Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program, to educate members about economic adulteration of herbal ingredients and products. BAPP is focused on such issues as a finished supplement product containing a different herb than what is labeled—or containing less of an herb along with nondisclosed fillers.

According to an ABC webpage, "BAPP publications are having a positive impact on the natural products industry, with companies reporting revisions of specifications for their ingredients, improvements in their quality control measures, changes to more reliable suppliers, and other efforts to help ensure authenticity in their supply chain and prevent the presence of adulterated ingredients in their products."

Blumenthal has been following adulteration issues since at least the 1970s. In a 2019 podcast with Natural Products Insider, he recalled entrepreneurs in the American Southwest selling “a so-called wild red American ginseng.”

But the plant from the Southwest desert was not botanically, chemically or pharmacologically related to true American ginseng, he said.

“It had no relation to true ginseng whatsoever. It was total fraud,” Blumenthal recalled.

The adulteration program, Blumenthal observed in the October interview, has drawn hundreds of sponsors who support additional “focus on helping companies protect themselves from being victimized by the unscrupulous sellers of fraudulent material.”

“Any product or ingredient that is not what it claims to be,” he remarked, “is a disservice to the public health.”

Blumenthal said he wants consumers to be healthy and well “through natural medicine, good nutrition and proper, judicious and responsible use of properly manufactured and labeled dietary supplements.”

A ‘Super Natural’ man

Blumenthal is a widely venerated professional in the herbal products industry. In 2019, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) presented him with its Super Natural award for devising and fostering positive information about herbal ingredients for more than 40 years.

As ABC’s founder and HerbalGram’s editor and publisher, “Mark and his extensive background in herbs and medicinal plants has benefitted the industry tremendously,” AHPA President Michael McGuffin told Natural Products Insider in an email.

AHPA has enjoyed a relationship with Blumenthal for over four decades. Blumenthal attended the first AHPA meeting in July 1982, noted McGuffin, who added AHPA and the Herb Research Foundation produced HerbalGram’s earliest issues.

“ABC has now published 132 issues of HerbalGram, and as its editor-in-chief, Mark has struck a unique balance in creating a publication that is attractive to scientists and researchers and also readable by the public,” McGuffin said.

United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) President Loren Israelsen credited Blumenthal for myriad professional accomplishments over the decades. Among other initiatives, he identified HerbalGram, BAPP and the Sustainable Herbs Program.

Israelsen also lauded Blumenthal for some of his personal attributes.

“First and foremost, he reminds many of us to call our mothers on their birthday,” he said via email. “And I am serious.”

On a lighter note, Israelsen said Blumenthal maintains “the largest thrift shop collection of Hawaiian shirts on record.”

“But, perhaps most of all,” Israelsen concluded, Blumenthal has created “a group of dedicated and very experienced staff committed to the mission of ABC, the botanical community, and elevating botanicals to the rightful place as one of the great gifts of nature in service of all of us.”



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