I’ve been to Natural Products Day a handful of times, and I get more and more confident of how to talk to Congressional members and their staff. Truth be told, participants in this event, hosted by the Natural Products Association (NPA), rarely get to talk to the actual Senators and Representatives, but usually talk to one or two of the member’s staff. These staffers tend to be very young, mostly in their 20s, but they have a powerful voice with their members and often have a good knowledge of the issues we present. At the very least, they are quick studies when we bring them new info.
The natural products industry is well-known for its grassroots prowess and bipartisan support in Congress. See Insider’s Immersion Center: 20 Years of DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) for evidence of how dietary supplement regulation today owes entirely to the grassroots and association efforts of yesteryear.
The key to successful “lobbying” is simple: show up. Your voice can’t be heard if you swallow it. You can't make connections with your representation in Congress if you don’t reach out to them. NPA has made it easy to do these things.
The day starts with a bit of education, this year held at the swanky Bloomberg Government offices in downtown DC. First, there’s a welcome and a review of the current issues the industry wants to discuss with Congress. These were handled by Dan Fabricant, Ph.D., CEO of NPA; Roxanne Green, president of the NPA Board; Congressional and policy expert Ed Long, Ph.D., VP of Van Scoyoc Associates; and longtime industry attorney Jack Martin, of Walker, Martin & Hatch. Training on how to talk to Congressional staff was given by Matt Keelen from the lobbying firm Keelen Group.
For all registered participants, NPA set up afternoon meetings with the Senators and Representatives from each person’s state and district. Armed with our booklets full of natural products issues and positions (see this booklet at the NPA website), we rode the shuttles over to Capitol Building to start our afternoon of meetings.
In previous years I’ve either joined the Virginians for their meetings, as I live in Northern Virginia, or I’ve floated around to various meetings with key Congressional members from various states. This year, there was nobody present to visit the Senators for Arizona, where Insider and Informa Exhibitions are based, so I agreed to attend those meetings alone. These would be my first solo meetings ever.
As the staff for Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) were too busy to meet with me, I went by their office to drop off our issues/position booklet and leave business cards for the staff to contact me or NPA later for more information on any of the issues. Then it was off to a meeting with the staff of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
McCain’s staff member overseeing health and nutrition was very attentive and knowledgeable about the issues I presented, including the potential public health benefits of allowing Americans to use flexible savings accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs) to purchase dietary supplements and meal replacements. Legislation to allow for these purchases was introduced two years ago by Sen Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in the Senate and Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN) in the House. This legislation is expected to be re-introduced this session, and we were asking for support of these forthcoming bills.
After discussing a few other issues, including the lack of transparency in the NY Attorney General (AG) investigation of herbal supplements and the need for greater accountability of FDA in the enforcement of existing supplement regulation, I urged McCain and his office to reach out to me and NPA if they ever need more info on natural products issues, and I invited Sen. McCain to visit the Informa Exhibition offices in downtown Phoenix the next time he is back home.
As I moved onto the office of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), I was also pleased with the attention and savvy his health staffer showed me. Again we talked about FSAs/HSAs and the NY AG case, as well as GMO labeling relative to USDA Organic. She said transparency is very important to Sen. Flake, and his office will continue to monitor the issues I discussed with her. In this case, while I left contact info for me and NPA, his staffer asked us to keep them informed if any of these issues or potential legislation reach a critical point.
With time on my hands, I joined my Virginia contingent to hit up Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-VA) office. I had survived my solo lobbying meetings and actually felt very good about the connections I made, but it was nice to meet up with my friends Sue Bennett, board member for NPA East and owner of For Goodness Sakes health food store in Leesburg, VA; and Donnie Caffrey, an NPA Director and owner of Good Foods Grocery in Richmond, VA. These two have long histories in the natural products industry and NPA, and they are way more veteran to Natural Products Day and lobbying than I am. See, the day is not only about connecting with members of Congress and their staff, but also with fellow NPA members, including health food stores, manufacturers and brokers.
Sen. Warner’s health and nutrition guy was one of the sharpest of the day. He understood everything we threw his way and even showed an ability to get to the heart of the issues. We had an especially rousing discussion of how FTC is trying to use its consent orders to establish a precedent of requiring two RCTs (randomized, control trials) for substantiation, even for structure-function claims, which is an affront to DSHEA. Besides the legalities involved, we talked about the difficulties of relying solely on RCTs for nutritional research—we advised him to check out the excellent review of the value of RCTs in nutrition by Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., senior scientist and director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University’s Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.
My last appointment was just as a fly-on-the-wall in a meeting with Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) led by Fabricant and NY-based industry lawyer Marc Ullman, Ullman, Shapiro & Ullman. Rice’s staffer was very sharp, asking probing questions about FTC, FDA, the NY AG and supplement regulations.
All in all, it was a great year, with many NPA members participating from many states. Despite great participation overall this year, I was disappointed to be the only one in meetings for Arizona. I urge all NPA members to consider participating at the next such event. Even though there was not one active piece of legislation relative to dietary supplements, it is important to maintain regular contact with Congressional offices and take advantage of these times to educate staffers on various natural products issues and get out in front of any future legislation or federal actions.
For more information about the day, check out NPA’s recap.