DSHEA, 20 Years Later: Loren Israelsen Looks Back--and Ahead (Part 1 of 2)

In the first part of a two-part interview, Pete Croatto talks to UNPAs executive director Loren Israelsen about DSHEAs legacyand how it can be preserved.

Pete Croatto, Contributing Editor

January 28, 2014

7 Min Read
DSHEA, 20 Years Later: Loren Israelsen Looks Back--and Ahead (Part 1 of 2)

There is no comparable law in any other country, says Loren Israelsen, executive director of the United Natural Products Alliance. Seriously, DSHEA stands unique on the global scene. He would know. Israelsen worked on getting DSHEA passed in 1994, and has seen the law evolve.

I talked with Israelsen via telephone last Friday for 30 minutes, and it was time well spent. I hope you agree. The interview has been edited for clarity. Part two will run tomorrow.

Also, Natural Products INSIDER is running an interview with Israelsen about DSHEA on February 5th. Its my hope that both pieces will give readers a thorough history of this historic piece of legislation.

Supplement Perspectives: Whats striking about DSHEA is that it really was at its heart a grassroots movement. Could the same type of change have occurred if the movement came just from big companies?

Loren Israelsen: No. A couple of reasons: Big companies would seldom have ever sought this kind of change. The ideas in DSHEA typically dont come from big industry. This really was predicated on revolutionary ideas and really big change. The normal Washington legislative procedure is to quietly shop some ideas around, see if you can build it into something, and then get it dropped in as an amendment to some other bill. Thats the most convenient and efficient way to do these things. You dont need a populist uprising to do that. Hence, you would not use the DSHEA approach as we did.

Supplement Perspectives: Is there another issue now that warrants such an approach?

Loren Israelsen: In fact, we do have one: its called the GMO labeling issue. Its DSHEAs first cousin, if not little sister.

Supplement Perspectives: So without DSHEA this wouldnt be happening?

Loren Israelsen: Thats a good question. I suspect it would be going on. The efforts around organic labeling and legislation, which have been going on on for as many years as DSHEA itself, really came out of the heart of the food industry and the food culture. DSHEA really, truly came out of the heart of the supplement culture and industry centers. Twenty years ago they were at different places. The only times that we would truly cross over would be at Expo West and in a heath food store. The individuals involved, the members of Congress who were leads on those issues, different. What we find intriguing, and a very important signal, [is] for the first time in 20-plus years, these two sides are merging together and around the GMO labeling issue. You will have people who are truly from the organic food clan, marching shoulder-to-shoulder with someone carrying a gun in defense of DSHEA. I think they will recognize each other as brothers- and sisters-in-arms. Im trying not to get militaristic about this. We have a convergence going on, and that is one of the news stories of 2014.

Supplement Perspectives: It must be nice to have that co-mingling, because you have support in place for the next issue after GMOs.

Loren Israelsen: This is one of my mantras: Our industry operates on roughly a 20-year cycle. We will go through something greatDSHEA, organic legislation, Proxmire amendmentand then we really have this tremendous moment of coming together, joint action, a period of active, selfless work in support of an idea and a principle. Weve had a great track record. We tend to win.

[We] enjoy the fruits of that effort. Then, we tend to forget. The original combatants retire, move on, do something else. Now 20 years later weve got to really rebuild it all. Something has to be done. If not us, who? How do we do it? Lets organize this thing, and move on. What were seeing now is that: Organizing discussion meetings, a great deal of coverage in the media, consumers that are literally pounding their fists on check-out counters asking retailers, How come you dont know if this non-GMO or not? Why do I have such difficulty figuring out if Im buying something I really regard as bad for my family? Why are you carrying this product at all? Whats wrong with you? That rise of emotion is a really good sign that were getting ready for the work ahead.

Supplement Perspectives: What would the industry look like today if FDA had achieved its goal to approve claims?

Loren Israelsen: ...[Without DSHEA] it would look a hell of a lot smaller. It would largely be confined to health foods stores. The assortment of products would be far more narrow, meaning lot of well-known botanicals, amino acids, minerals, high-potency vitamins/minerals, probiotics, possibly even fish oils, may or may not even be on the shelf.

The working documents that FDA had that were there go-forward plan identified most of what I just described as unapproved food additives, drugs, or otherwise not candidates to be dietary supplements. So if FDA had acted on their working plans, I think you could say realistically that is what the industry would have looked like. A lot of the innovation, a lot of the creativity, and the good ideas wouldnt be there. Products in larger juice formats would not be there. A lot of the creative ideas and people would not have moved into this space because it would have looked quite dry and barren to a lot of people.

Supplement Perspectives: As time goes by, do you think DSHEAs effects get forgotten?

Loren Israelsen: I do. I think theres a lack of gratitude. No, first, its appreciation. Theres just a lack of appreciation for what DSHEA did to create a different marketplace, especially for those younger in the industry. The analogy, just based on age, would be a young teenager today who has an IPhone who is texting and lives in a digital world. If they see a fax machine, [they go] what is that? How did anybody use that thing? Even a typewriter. Theyd say, You actually did business on that? and theyre astonished. And so it goes is that the understanding of how daily life was conducted and what tools and mechanisms were available for communication, transportation, all these things, blows their mind. That is our problem: Is both the context in which DSHEA was crafted and passed and the tools used to do that and the attitude and role of government at that time, the young members of our industry have no software to understand that.

Part of our work in the 20-year recognition of DSHEA is to try to bring some of that to life: there are stories, there are people, there are ephemera, there are case studies to be used where we need to teach the next generation that this is an ongoing duty. And the non-GMO issue is an extension of that continuing duty, and it will keep going. There are all kinds of things beyond non-GMO that are the work of this industry.

Supplement Perspectives: How do you get that younger generation carry that flame?

Loren Israelsen: We have the good fortune of being a kind of a lighthouse to a genotype of people who are drawn and called to the natural health and organic world, all that represents. A lot of them come to us wanting to be a part of this. Our job is to receive them, embrace them, hand them a shovel and say, Start diggingand put them to work. Thats really the best thing to do: have a very keen recognition that they come to us wanting to be a part of this. Interestingly, we have a lot of older execs come to this industry, people who have had long careers in other industriesbig food, big pharma, academicsand have stayed here because they [see] a sense of community unfelt, unseen from the worlds they came from. Thats part of who we are. We need to invite people to join with us then give them something to do.

When I showed up on the scene thats kind of what happened to me. Somebody said, Hey, youre standing around loitering, get over here and start doing this. I said, Who, me? He said, Yeah, you. I now know looking back that it was one of the greatest times of my life. I was allowed to be part of something that I didnt appreciate then as much as I do now. Here I am 33 years later and Im still doing it. There must be something to it, at least for me, as to why I keep doing this along with so many othersWe are called to this. Many of us feel that way. We stay because this is the life we live. We really do live what we preach and, consequently, its really important.

About the Author(s)

Pete Croatto

Contributing Editor

Pete Croatto is a freelance writer in Ithaca, New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Grantland, SI.com, VICE Sports, and Publishers Weekly. 

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