Concern is high, and answers are few as the dietary supplement industry faces the pandemic COVID-19, the respiratory diseases caused by a novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. By press time, COVID-19 has reached 108 countries, infected nearly 125,000 people, and more than 4,500 people have died.
Industries across the world are considering how this virus will play out, and how it will affect their people and products. For supplement brands, special considerations focus on supply chain concerns, FDA enforcement and illegal marketing claims.
In this podcast, Jim C. Griffiths, senior vice president of international and scientific affairs, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), discusses the issues facing supplement brands with Sandy Almendarez, content director, Informa Markets. They cover:
- The high level of concern that the supplement industry faces during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation.
- The direct impacts supplement brands are facing now, and how they can help ensure a safe, steady supply chain.
- The need for supplement brands to diversify their ingredient supply chains.
Check out other COVID-19 coverage from Natural Products Insider:
- Article: “Natural products, dietary supplement industries shook by supply chain slowdown”
- Article: “FDA leaning on tools other than inspections in coronavirus response”
- Article: “Senator calls COVID-19 warning letters ‘insufficient’”
- Article: “Wave of warning letters sent targeting COVID-19”
Check out COVID-19 coverage from our sister brand Food & Beverage Insider:
- Podcast: “Is your brand prepared to handle a COVID-19 crisis?”
- Article: “Coronavirus impacting food market in US and abroad”
Sandy Almendarez, content director, Informa Markets: Hi, and welcome to a Healthy Insider Podcast. I am Sandy, and on the phone, I've got Jim C. Griffiths who is the senior vice president of international and scientific affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). Hi, Jim.
Jim C. Griffiths, senior vice president of international and scientific affairs, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN): Hi, Sandy, it's nice to talk to you, although the topic might be a little bit concerning, but it's still nice to talk to you.
Almendarez: That's right, we today we are going to talk about COVID-19, which is the respiratory diseases caused by a novel coronavirus. This originated in Wuhan, China, and as of the time of this recording, it has reached 70 countries an infected nearly 100,000 people, and more than 3,300 people have died. This is quite a quick moving situation, but I wanted to get Jim on the phone on this podcast to talk about where we are and how this looks for supplement supply chains.
Before we get started, Jim is responsible for CRN’ science-based international policy and regulatory work and is the CRN staff liaison for CRN-International CRN-I. He has more than 30 years of experience in food safety and regulatory affairs. Prior to joining CRN, he spent five years with the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), where he managed food and dietary supplement strategic initiatives, including those related to global food and dietary supplement alliances. He began his career as a regulatory review toxicologist at FD’s CFSAN (the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition)
Jim, with so much of our industry having a stake in China, either through production facilities or a reliance on ingredients or raw materials, what would you say is the level of concern among CRN members?
Griffiths: I would think that high is probably not high enough when you talk about the concern right now with our members and just the confusion in the chaos surrounding this very rapidly spreading situation. Even things that look like they might have been normalizing a week or 10 days ago as we saw the infection rates start to plateau in China. I think there was some thought that we were coming out of the back end of this particular epidemic, but I think this past week, if nothing, else has taught us that things are not what they seem. And we are in for a rollercoaster with other countries and other hotspots showing up almost by the hour. I live in Maryland, and suburban Washington, DC, and as of this morning we had our first three cases, so things changed for me dramatically overnight, and I suspect is happening in so many different areas that are members are just scrambling to understand how the short-, mid- and long-term effects will play out as they try to deal with their logistics and supply chain for materials.
Almendarez: Yeah, I'm in Arizona and as of right now, we've had two confirmed cases, and I imagine many more to come. So, from your perspective, are CRN member companies seeing a direct impact already on their businesses, or operations due to the outbreak? And if so, what are these practical realities that they're facing?
Griffiths: Well at the trade association, I'm kind of away from that frontline activity for most of our members, but I must assume that they are already seeing a direct impact, especially for key ingredients that can only come from China, and especially if they've had a policy of just-in-time logistics where they have not overly stockpiled materials for lack of probably foresight and maybe other reasons. But coming on the tail end of the Chinese New Year. We like to think that many of our members did anticipate that there would be logistical chokepoints post Chinese New Year’s such that they may have anticipated the need for materials for at least a couple of months’ window an, and if that's the case, I would assume those companies maybe are less affected immediately, but as I said in your previous question, all bets are off on where next and to what extent. I followed daily the infection rates, and both in China as well as the rest of the world. Right now, it's a pretty small dot on India, but if that were to assume some of the same magnitude as we've seen in in other countries, that could once again jeopardize a potentially secondary source of where our members are getting either their initial materials or their back-up materials. I would probably assume that many of them are directly impacted immediately if not on their supplies, but on where they'll get their supplies next month or this summer.
Almendarez: So, given all that, do you think it's time for the supplement industry to reassess its reliance on China for the supply of all of its ingredients? Well not all of, but many of them.
Griffiths: I hate to be pejorative to a single country because this particular outbreak did indeed start in China, and that of course is the the epicenter of this pandemic, but if this had happened in Europe, or it happened in Latin America, would we be having the same type of conversation on the types of products we get from those regions? Once again, I think it's the reliance on a single country or single region, which is probably the issue at hand, and we've come too. Use China as a supplier of almost everything on in every industry, but I think the most recent tariff spat between the U.S. in China caused some companies to begin rethinking their supply chains and where they get materials. I think the COVID-19 has just a cemented in the minds of many that there needs to be a multitude of sources for these types of key ingredients and whether that stimulates U.S. production or U.S. manufacturing to help supply now and going into the future, or just to be an alternate source, I have no idea. I just think that the problem when you rely on a single know area, a single country for virtually everything you are prone to a problem, whether it be an earthquake, whether it be a tsunami or some other disaster, it Just happens to be COCID-19 and just happens to be China that we're having this conversation.
Almendarez: Right, it appears there is certainly opportunity for some ingredient suppliers to diversify. I’m not saying that that would be an easy thing to undertake at all. Thinking of the supplement brands and their own operations, how can they best ensure that their supply chains stay safe and stable as much as possible during this time?
Griffiths: I think once again, as previously stated, a mix of suppliers for your key materials from various regions or countries would be a step in the right direction. As you talked about China in the previous question, there needs to be of a measured stepwise fashion in exploring these alternatives. I fear that if everyone wholesale runs to Southeast Asia or India or Latin America for everything, you set the stage for a similar scenario in the future, and so I think there needs to be some wisdom and some stepwise approach to how one would develop a mix of suppliers to ensure the stability that we would need in our industry. I think once again, your key materials: They need to not be a focus of just in time supplies. I think there needs to be recognition that you may have to warehouse or stock sufficient key materials so that if there is a situation anywhere in the globe, that you're not caught in this kind of a scenario unable to get the things you need.
Almendarez: CRN was part of a coalition of trade associations that warned consumers early on that supplements cannot make claims to cure or to prevent COVID. Why was it important to do that?
Griffiths: Well, hopefully you had a chance to see that that that coalition press release we put out. I think CRN has always been consistent with the other trades in taking a strong position against marketing dietary supplements for the treatment or prevention of disease. And that includes not only currently, but anthrax, SARS, avian flu, Ebola, and Zika, and many other scenarios that have arisen over the last few years. We're seeing once again and almost hour to hour, growing concern on this particular COVID-19. We understand that the public really is looking for opportunities to self-protect. I don't want to say self-medicate, but they they're looking for what they can take to have some sense of protection. I think that it's critical to remind the consumers or retailers and the marketers that to our knowledge there is no dietary supplement that can prevent or treat novel coronavirus COVID-19. And even if there were, that's the realm of FDA's drug side and not in the purview of a dietary supplement. So once again, even if a supplement were shown to have amazing benefits, I would hope that they would be in touch with the FDA CDER (Center for Drug Evaluations and Research) or the right Division within FDA on the drug side. I think all of us prioritize the safety and wellbeing of our consumers above all else, and we want to remind everyone that were part of a very responsible industry, and we're committed to safe, high-quality product that do offer benefits, and those well-established benefits could play a role in supporting immune health. But once we start going down the road of “cure, mitigate, treat a disease,” I think that we need to recognize that that's not appropriate for our industry.
Almendarez: Lastly, how might COVID affect FDA's ability to enforce laws, such as GMPs (good manufacturing practices) or FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) requirements?
Griffiths: Well, hopefully this is a—I don't want to say wakeup call—but hopefully it is a chance for FDA to focus on its legally mandated activities. I know that they always have resource and priority issues, but hopefully COVID-19 will help them focus on ways that they can deal with these types of epidemics that arise. I don't know how much could have been done looking backwards at this point had FDA had a more rigorous role in China, especially given how this is most likely to have transmitted from animals to humans in that Wuhan animal market, so I don't know that COVID-19 would have been caught or addressed had FDA been even more aggressive than they are. But I would like to think that food quality and the ability to deal with these type of infections—if they could be resolved through GMP and coming down hard on those FSMA requirements, I would hope that would be a place that FDA would put resources and energy.
Almendarez: Well, thank you so much for joining me today Jim. It's a pleasure, even though it's on a somber topic.
Griffiths: Thank you Sandy.