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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
At Natural Products Expo West, I spoke to many companies about how the industry is both talking about transparency and acting on it during the past year of negative industry scrutiny.
Transparency is a buzzword, but it’s one that more dietary supplement companies are using these days. The clichÃ©, however, doesn’t minimize the importance of the material steps companies are taking to bolster supply-chain quality. At Natural Products Expo West, I spoke to many companies about how the industry is both talking about transparency and acting on it during the past year of negative industry scrutiny that followed New York Attorney General (NY AG) Eric Schneiderman’s investigation of herbal supplements.
Because one thing is for certain; the status quo will never do when it comes to quality assurance-not yesterday, not today, and not tomorrow.
“Dietary supplement companies are striving to restore and maintain brand integrity by demonstrating their commitment to producing safer products for their customers,” says Dr. Cheryl Luther, general manager, dietary supplements and beverages, NSF International (Ann Arbor, MI).
Documentation in Detail
“It’s no secret that the supplement industry was the subject of greater scrutiny than usual in 2015,” said botanical-ingredients supplier Naturex (South Hackensack, NJ) in a recent press release. “These recent challenges have done a lot to change both consumer and retailer behavior, both of whom want as much information as possible about the products they are buying. In this context of uncertainty, the industry has no choice but to foster maximal transparency.”
At Natural Products Expo West, Naturex announced a new, five-point traceability program, called TRACE, encompassing sourcing, sample testing, product and supplier qualification processes, risk assessment, and sustainability performance. As part of TRACE, Naturex is also rolling out ID Pack, a comprehensive test report for each botanical extract the company sells “describing all the methods used to identify each botanical (micro, macro, chromatographic, and DNA tests on raw material; TLC and HPLC on finished extracts).” At Expo West the company showcased its first ID Packs, for lemon balm, passion flower, and valerian.
At Expo West, Karen Todd, senior director, global brand marketing, Kyowa Hakko USA (New York City), talked about how the company continues to follow in detail the industry-created SIDI protocol (Standardized Information on Dietary Ingredients) to document its process-“everything,” she said. “We’re totally transparent with that, and we update those all the time.” She said these comprehensive documents allow the company to hand everything over to a manufacturer and say, “Here’s all you need for your files.”
With heightened scrutiny of the industry, documentation like SIDI’s is “even more important now” than ever before, Todd said. “If our customers need it, we want to have it before they even ask for it. We want to be proactive.”
Not Just the Ingredients
Some people might not give a lot of thought to how a supplement’s delivery vehicle plays a crucial role in allowing manufacturers to make good on their product promises. But the right capsule, for instance, can allow a company to deliver on claims of bioavailability, delayed release, vegetarian/vegan benefits, and even non-GMO assurances.
At Natural Products Expo West, I spoke to Missy Lowery, senior marketing manager, Capsugel (Greenwood, SC), about her company's role in making sure supplement marketers have the right capsule delivery tools. “Any claims that you put on your label, you have to substantiate,” she said. For instance, it doesn’t work to have a non-GMO product formula and then put the ingredients in a capsule that isn’t non-GMO; in that scenario, she said, “a delivery system that knocks you out of the game of non-GMO doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
For this reason, Capsugel’s product lineup carries a host of certifications for whatever a company may require, everything from vegan, kosher, halal, and NSF GMP certification to non-GMO Project Verified.
Capsugel’s delayed-release and other advanced technologies also help with cleaner labels, better efficacy, and a higher-quality consumer experience overall. “When you’re talking about a move toward transparency,” Lowery said, “you don’t need to add a lot of excipients, binders, or distintegrants-all of the things that end up creating that long laundry list of ingredients. There are a number of different, natural ways that you’re able to improve solubility of the ingredients or improve absorbability of the ingredients. We have been investigating more natural excipients so we can better help our customers be able to use more acceptable, natural alternatives.”
Having a delivery-systems supplier with all of the certifications and accompanying documentation is an important part of transparency, she added. “If you don’t have the traceable steps, if you don’t have the documentation necessary, if you have something in your product that you don’t realize is in your product because whoever provided the excipient or the capsule didn’t have the right kind of paperwork to follow up, that puts your brand, your future, in real question. And that’s what transparency is all about.”
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Bringing more of a company’s supply chain in house is an obvious way to strengthen oversight. Ginkgo supplier TSI Group (Missoula, MT), which has a strong supply network in China, recently announced it purchased 1000 acres of its own farmland in China dedicated exclusively to ginkgo tree cultivation. The move will allow TSI to grow more ginkgo itself, rather than purchasing leaves from other growers, as it had been.
“Especially in the last several months, I see more of our customers coming to talk to us about transparency and how to secure the supply chain,” explained Joe Zhou, CEO of TSI, at Natural Products Expo West. He added that the company’s ginkgo farmland purchase should allow TSI’s customers to be more confident in the integrity of its entire ginkgo supply chain.
At Expo West, krill oil supplier Aker BioMarine (Oslo Norway) pointed out the benefits the company is seeing since recently opening its own extraction facility in Houston, TX. “Now, everything is owned and controlled by us,” from the company’s fishing vessels to its oil processing, said Becky Wright, Aker’s marketing director. “I think a lot of people want to know you have oversight of what’s going on.”
Sweeping the Curtain Aside
In 2010, herbal supplements brand Gaia Herbs started its MeetYourHerbs program. Through this industry-first initiative, the company began featuring tracking codes on all of its product packages that allow consumers to find out more, via the company’s website, about how the herbs were harvested, tested, and processed. The company, which was also at Natural Products Expo West, commented on how this type of transparency design is more important than ever.
“With customers being more educated and engaged, an increasing number of companies are beginning to see the need for some sort of transparency program,” said Alison Czeczuga, the firm’s education and communications manager. “We started MeetYourHerbs in 2010, before the NY AG investigation, because it is the right thing to do, and we want our customers to be able to know where the plants we use come from.”
“Transparency and traceability are at the core of gaining consumer trust back,” Czeczuga continued. “We believe that the more transparent the industry is, the stronger the industry will become. We are continuing to add more multimedia assets and stories to the [MeetYourHerbs] platform, so that we can encourage more consumers to meet their herbs through this program in a deep and meaningful way.”
As for ensuring quality, the company tests…and then tests again, and again. “Even if a grower is certified organic, we still do in-house testing, as even some certified-organic farms have failed our stringent testing specifications,” Czeczuga said. “We will even test our own material grown on our certified-organic farm to ensure only the highest-quality, purest form of raw material is being used. We have an entire department dedicated to quality assurance and quality control.”
Change Is Necessary, and the Investment Is Worth It
At Natural Products Expo West, Dan Fabricant, executive director and CEO of the Natural Products Association (NPA; Washington, DC), and Michael O’Hara, general manager, global nutraceuticals, Underwriters Laboratories (UL; Northbrook, IL), shared their thoughts on how the industry’s quality improvements are progressing. (Last year, the two companies partnered up so that UL-an auditor, tester, and certifier founded in 1894-is now an auditor for NPA’s GMP certification program. Fabricant said the partnership “makes a lot of sense; both organizations are credibility rich.”)
Fabricant said, “Everyone paid attention to the New York Attorney General, but the question is, did they pay attention from the aspect of, ‘Oh, these guys don't like us,’ or are they paying attention to the aspect of, ‘Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insanity’? So what are people doing differently?”
“You can’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s do everything the same because there aren’t any problems,” O’Hara added. “You have to identify what those issues are and do something different to solve them. I think many people in the industry are responding that way, to say, ‘Okay, let’s do something different.’” O’Hara and Fabricant said that NPA’s GMP certification program, and UL’s role in administering it, is an important wheel in the cog of quality control.
In the same vein, NSF’s Luther speaks to how certifiers are helping to assuage consumer concerns. “Retailers and consumers want to know that they can trust the safety and quality of supplements, and NSF International has technical experts that can help. More manufacturers and retailers are seeking NSF International Dietary Supplement Certification as a result. The industry is looking deeper into self-regulation to distance themselves from companies that are bad actors and to maintain consumer confidence.”
All in all, these companies said, making the commitment to continually improving supply-chain quality and transparency is what any company participating in the space signed up for in the first place.
“The innovation comes at a price, but that price pays for itself,” said Capsugel’s Lowery. “People want to know what they’re taking is safe and that it’s going to do what you say it’s going to do. That’s the promise we made to consumers, and we need to live up to it.”
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