Let Your Voices Be Heard

Political advocacy was foundational to the natural products industry and continues to be an important duty for those interested in a strong business future.

Steve Myers, Senior Editor

June 4, 2015

9 Min Read
Let Your Voices Be Heard

Where would the U.S. natural products industry be without political advocacy? Where would it go in the future without enough advocacy efforts?

Surely, one answer to the first question could easily be: a country where most dietary ingredients popular in the marketplace today would be considered food additives. To the second question, the answer is anyone’s guess, but among the possibilities are: a place where DSHEA (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) is altered or dismantled, where costly and unnecessary regulations are passed, or where premarket approval overburdens both industry and FDA.

In the early days of the birth of DSHEA, the landmark legislation that shapes dietary supplement regulation today, the newly formed Citizens for Health (CFH) advocacy group tried to help Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) win bipartisan support for his Health Freedom Act of 1990, which would later become the bones of DSHEA. CFH had some success trying to convince Bill Richardson, then a Democratic Senator from New Mexico, that the L-tryptophan that had recently caused several deaths in his district were due to a genetically engineered method used by a Japanese supplier. However, Richardson said while he was responsive, he’d need to hear from many of his constituents before considering supporting Hatch’s bill.

This harkens to a famous President Franklin D. Roosevelt statement, to a contingent of businessmen, “OK, you've convinced me. Now go out there and bring pressure on me."

New Mexico became ground zero for the start of what would become an historic grassroots effort. A huge rally in the state convinced Sen. Richardson to support Hatch’s bill, and a subsequent Nothing-for-Sale event by 95 percent of health food stores in the state provided consumers a stark reality of what would happen if DSHEA did not pass.

Together with other industry grassroots efforts, including a major TV advertising campaign, retailers around the country had consumers contacting Congress about protecting their freedom to consume supplements and demanding they support the passage of DSHEA. In the end, millions of letters were sent to members of Congress urging support for DSHEA, which passed in October 1994.

With this great accomplishment, the job is not over...

... FDA was put in charge of implementing DSHEA, including the establishment of final regulations for GMPs (good manufacturing practices) and new dietary ingredient (NDI) notifications. Many industry insiders have felt FDA has leaned more toward drug models for these regulations than the food models DSHEA intended. Also, most of the members of Congress who learned about the industry and supported DSHEA are no longer on Capitol Hill. Further, heavy criticisms of the supplement industry have increasingly come from the media, academia and politics, and they are advocating strongly for increased regulation, even the abolishment of DSHEA for a regulatory model that matches drug regulations.

Dan Fabricant, executive director and CEO of the Natural Products Association (NPA), said bad policy ideas can start anywhere, including both the state and federal levels, and if the supplement industry is not constantly engaging legislators, it’s tough for those lawmakers to get another opinion on the bad ideas. “Look at all the misconceptions there are about the dietary supplement and natural products industry," he said. “Left unchecked, they can lead to some pretty catastrophic circumstances that will effectively end people’s ability to do business."

Frank Lampe, vice president of communications and industry relations for the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA), said the foundation of the industry is built on advocacy, stretching back to the 1930s, often considered the beginning of the so-called health food movement, and carrying through to a pair of books in the 1960s and 1970s—Frances Moore Lappe’s “Diet for a Small Planet" and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring"—which were calls to action for advocacy around food, environment and health. “Nothing has changed," Lampe assured. “The need for advocacy is as strong as ever and, perhaps with all the events of earlier this year, such as the fallout from the New York Attorney General’s action, more important than ever."

Associations and trade groups are the hubs of political advocacy for industry. Associations are designed, Fabricant explained, to function like Congressional staff, with people on different disciplines such as legislative, legal, regulatory, policy, press and other areas, who can advise on those issues with the appropriate expertise. Associations connect with state and federal lawmakers on key industry issues and also educate association members on both the issues and key politicians.

“Congress and state legislatures aren’t going to be experts on every single issue," Fabricant noted, adding legislators will research issues, but may miss big points. “One of the key things we offer is in-depth information on how things work." He stressed the importance of having one consistent and accurate industry message on Capitol Hill and in the states, but that doesn’t mean the industry doesn’t also need many voices trumpeting its causes. Politicians want to know how engaged constituents are. “If people write a letter or give to a campaign, they are going to vote too," Fabricant said, “Politicians know that."

Associations offer special days where members can visit their Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill to discuss unified industry stances on key issues. There is also an opportunity to contribute to Congressional campaigns, whether financially through PACs (political action committees) or with time by volunteering to help a campaign, such as by hosting an event. Associations also advise their members and industry about individual candidates and their voting records relative to industry issues. “We also keep info on how many businesses are in their district or their state," Fabricant reported. “We have found if there are more businesses in their state or district, they are more inclined to become a champion of the industry."

Fabricant explained associations generally work through committee structures, so these meetings are good starting places for industry members interested in being more politically active. “This is where issues are discussed and hashed out, whether for the first time or 900th time," he said. Members looking to up their advocacy efforts can ask themselves: What does the association need me to do? Does it need me to contribute to PACs, and reach out to my customers and staff to get them involved? “Associations need to be able to mobilize people in the industry," Fabricant said.

Lampe said UNPA encourages its members to create relationships with both their state and federal legislators. He said sometimes federal legislators are easier to reach via their state or district offices. “The staff at the state office reports back to the DC staff and lets the Congressional member know what’s on their constituents’ minds," Lampe explained, adding it’s also easier to get into the state or district offices, which generally are more receptive and will give more time. “It is not quite the crazy scene you see on Capitol Hill."

To further state-level advocacy, UNPA started to develop State Chapter Initiatives in 2012 and currently includes nine states. Lampe explained the thinking was to make a concerted effort for its membership to reach out to their federal legislators via the state offices. How UNPA members approach these meetings is also important, according to Lampe, who said instead of listing all that is wrong with regulations and FDA, it is more powerful to tell the member: “We are a mainstream, legitimate business; we employ all these people and are responsible for this much revenue that goes into the state or district; we pay taxes; we should have a relationship with you, and you should understand what we are about."

To support these initiatives, UNPA has been developing economic impact reports to be able to monetize the value of the natural products industry in each of these nine states included in this program. “The challenge with this is the information doesn’t readily exist," Lampe said. However, UNPA has completed the report for Hawaii and is almost done with the report for Arizona, which it expects to present at its annual members meeting in Phoenix this May.  

The most important message is for industry to get more involved in political advocacy...

... Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying, “Ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent." While a small number of loud voices is great, thousands of voices would be even better, like with the grassroots megachoir of voices that helped pass DSHEA.

Fabricant noted industry responded well to several issues five or six years ago, including proposed legislation by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but more recent advocacy has fallen short. “There has been some apathy over the past few years, and we need that to go away," he said, noting politics are very different now, and 40 percent of Congress is brand new. “Legislators are also spending more time at home in their districts, which means we have to contribute more to their campaigns, whether in time or money. The bottom line is: if we are not playing at the campaign level, we’re not going to be long for this world."

The monetary commitment is not to be glossed over. According to the Sunlight Foundation, for every dollar the most politically active corporations spend on influencing policy, they get back about $740 in business and support. The Foundation reported, “…the most persistent and savvy political players not so mysteriously have the ability to attract federal dollars regardless of who is running Washington."

Despite frequent mentions in mainstream media of the powerful nutrition lobby, spending on lobbying for nutrition and even natural and organic foods and beverages is relatively small. OpenSecrets.org has reported the top campaign donors from the nutrition industry in 2014 included GNC, DSM Nutrition USA, Abbott Labs, Pharmavite, Mead Johnson and Herbalife, the biggest donor. The trade associations—NPA, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and UNPA—also made the top ten list. However, when you juxtapose the total USD $4.06 million these ten donors contributed, it is dwarfed by the top-spending pharmaceutical/health industry ($230.07 million) and even the much lower-ranked printing and publishing industry ($15.59 million). The nutrition and supplements industry is basically on par with the waste management industry ($4.14 million).

The food and beverage industry spent $31.93 million in 2014, but natural and organic food brands are only a small part of that industry and are owned by some of the major parent corporations listed as top donors. The list of 61 major donors included major food manufacturing, soft drink, fast food, family restaurants and seafood companies, as well as energy drink brands and various food trade associations. The most recognizable natural products company named is Omega Protein, which sits about in the middle of the list.

Surely, the nutrition industry can do better, in terms of both money and actions. Its long-term viability and survival depend on it.

About the Author(s)

Steve Myers

Senior Editor

Steve Myers is a graduate of the English program at Arizona State University. He first entered the natural products industry and Virgo Publishing in 1997, right out of college, but escaped the searing Arizona heat by relocating to the East Coast. He left Informa Markets in 2022, after a formidable career focused on financial, regulatory and quality control issues, in addition to writing stories ranging research results to manufacturing. In his final years with the company, he spearheaded the editorial direction of Natural Products Insider.

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