On Dec. 11, 2014 in the Washington office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, a select group of representatives from the dietary supplement industry gathered during a meeting that had symbolic significance.
Two of Hatch’s colleagues were present: Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who joined the House of Representatives in 1975; and a junior senator from New Mexico who was born just four years earlier.
Harkin is a revered figure in the dietary supplement industry. But as the holiday season approached, industry executives and advocates understood they could no longer count on him to fight perilous legislation on the Senate floor or refute accusations that natural products are unregulated and dangerous drug wannabes.
He was retiring.
Enter Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from the Land of Enchantment who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012. The following year, Heinrich joined the dietary supplement caucus, a forum to educate lawmakers on issues in an industry with more than USD $20 billion a year in consumer sales.
“I have been talking for some time with Tom Harkin," the 43-year-old Heinrich said in a recent phone interview with Natural Products INSIDER.
The senior lawmaker was looking for someone “to really show a strong interest in these [dietary supplement] issues once he was gone from the Senate," Heinrich explained. “Sen. Harkin got the importance of that interest being a bipartisan effort."
The gathering in Hatch’s office was a symbolic showing that Harkin was passing the torch to Heinrich, who accepted the assignment, said numerous sources.
The meeting was “an important gesture that there is someone else on the Democratic side in the Senate who will be looking out for dietary supplements," explained Mike Greene, vice president of government relations with the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), in a phone interview. “His office has been extraordinarily interested in supplement issues."
Heinrich on Supplement Laws
Heinrich, a co-chair of the supplement caucus, said he plans to work closely with Hatch to ensure FDA enforces the law and uses its current authority to take enforcement action against wrongdoers.
“There has been very little enforcement in this area, and what we don’t need now … are additional laws regarding dietary supplements," Heinrich said.
“We need to utilize the very effective legal and regulatory structure that is there," Heinrich continued. "This is an industry that has really done an admirable job of policing itself, and I think the FDA and DOJ [Department of Justice] need to be part of that solution."
Response to NY AG Investigation
Heinrich’s colleagues in the Democratic Party are not unanimously in agreement. Perhaps most notably, Sens. Richard Durbin (Illinois) and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) have advocated for additional supplement regulations and laws.
Coincidentally, INSIDER interviewed Heinrich just a week before New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ignited a public relations crisis in the dietary supplement industry.
On Feb. 3, Schneiderman’s office revealed DNA results showed a number of supplements sold by four national retailers failed to contain the labeled herbs. Durbin and Blumenthal immediately called on FDA to launch a nationwide investigation into the products.
“The apparent widespread sale of fraudulently-labeled dietary supplements by four major national retailers should be a major wake-up call that the industry is in desperate need of additional oversight," Blumenthal said in a statement accompanying a press release.
A few weeks later, in a Feb. 18 letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Hatch and Heinrich questioned whether the testing methodology used by Scheiderman’s office was appropriate to identify DNA in botanical extracts.
“It is our understanding that the process of extracting an herb’s phytochemicals for use in finished products can either damage, destroy or simply leave behind the DNA this testing protocol is designed to find," the senators wrote, “which has left many scientists—inside and outside the industry—to question whether DNA barcoding technology is an appropriate or validated method for determining the presence of herbal ingredients in finished botanical products."
As the letter to FDA demonstrates, Heinrich may become a powerful ally for the industry in the Senate. But with Harkin gone and the certainty that the 80-year-old Hatch will eventually leave Congress, the dietary supplement industry has been on a quest to build several new allies on Capitol Hill where the Republicans control both chambers.
“We shouldn’t pretend what we’re going to do is replace two champions with two champions," said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), commenting in a phone interview on Harkin’s retirement and the eventual loss of Hatch. “Let’s think about replacing two champions with a dozen friends, with two dozen friends."