Reminiscing about the Dietary Supplement Industry's Early Days

December 7, 2012
Rhonda Lauritzen

Author Rhonda Lauritzen chats with American Botanical Council founder and executive director Mark Blumenthal about how the dietary supplement industry has changed since the early days-and what lies ahead.

Mark Blumenthal is the founder and executive director of the independent, nonprofit research and education group the American Botanical Council (ABC; Austin, TX). Rhonda Lauritzen is the author of a new book, Every Essential Element, a memoir of her family’s 55-year saga as pioneers in the dietary supplement industry. Blumenthal began his journey of natural living when he became a vegetarian in 1968. Lauritzen’s parents, Hartley and Gaye Anderson, started Mineral Resources International in 1969. The two reminisce about how the dietary supplement industry evolved into what it is today.  

Lauritzen: Mark, you became involved with the dietary supplement industry in that period between 1968 and 1971, when many of the industry’s flagship companies were established. What changes do you think have been most profound since then?

 

Blumenthal: Huge consolidation, mergers, and acquisitions. The end customer never gets to meet the owner like they used to, and top management is too often separated from the customer. It has become very “big business.” You see these guys in suits that don’t come from the herb, dietary supplement, or natural products industry; they often come from the mainstream food, consumer products, chemical, or pharma industries. Don’t get me wrong; you can’t judge people. There are people who wear suits who are truly committed, but much of the natural products industry has gone corporate.

Another issue: In the earlier days, we didn’t always have the testing and quality-control levels that we have now. For competitive reasons, in order for you to differentiate your product, you need a clean product.

There is also tremendous price pressure, where many ingredients have become commodities, and price is one of the primary specifications-and frequently the only one! This can result in a lack of attention to optimal quality, especially as we see more big retailers like Wal-Mart, Kroger, Walgreens, CVS, and many others with in-house brands, and frequently price is the key issue. That is what most concerns me these days. Increasingly, ABC is involved in a new supply chain integrity initiative to educate the industry and others. We must ensure the authenticity and integrity of all botanical dietary ingredients.

 

Lauritzen: I completely agree. When I was a kid, members of my family would personally interact with the product maybe a dozen times before placing it directly in the hands of store owners or consumers at trade shows. We would harvest the brine, then test, bottle, label, shrink wrap, box, drive, and unload, ultimately handing finished products over to customers. Of course, we are thrilled that our products are being used all over the world today, but I still think it is imperative for executives to get out and talk to people who use the products.

Speaking of the way the industry has changed since the beginning, what about the way consumers and companies get their information? How has that changed?

 

Blumenthal: Getting information out to the public was always challenging in the early days. In the beginning, since so much of the information on herbs was based on folklore, and the science was only beginning to emerge, I wanted to make sure there was a reliable, trustworthy source. That’s why I started HerbalGram [ABC’s prestigious journal] in 1983, as a way to get information out. Instead of a telegram, it was an HerbalGram. Back then, there were no faxes; there was no e-mail and no Internet. Now there are so many other channels with which to communicate and compete for people’s attention. But that is also a good thing: it has a very democratizing influence. The downside is there is a lot of commercially tainted information with a commercial agenda that is not always transparently obvious, particularly on the Internet. People can have a hard time distinguishing what passes the “smell test.” At ABC, the articles we write and publish are peer-reviewed and, we believe, reliable and responsible.

 

Lauritzen: How would you say the regulatory climate has changed since the beginning?

 

Blumenthal: There was considerably less regulation back in the 1970s. It should be remembered that there was no “safe harbor” as is provided for some supplement claims under DSHEA [the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994]. The FDA would view almost all herbs as unapproved drugs if there were any claims implied or expressed. There was relatively little GMP awareness or enforcement; any GMPs were mostly oriented towards sanitation-related measures that were required for conventional foods. Early attempts at self-regulation were in their infancy compared to today and were limited to those companies who belonged to trade associations. Those companies were, unfortunately, in the minority.

The increased level of regulation today is, in part, a function of the growth of the market as well as a lack of adequate compliance by some companies-many of whom are “outliers,” i.e., companies who are not fully engaged in trade associations, even though trade association membership, in itself, is no guarantee of regulatory compliance or ethical conduct.

 

Lauritzen: Going forward, I also think my parents would want to remind us that any health freedoms we enjoy today were hard fought and that we must be responsible for protecting the industry’s reputation as well as for being vigilant when changes are proposed. Dad used to say, “When you are in business, you are in politics. If you don’t get involved, the landscape will change without your input. We must never sit idly by, hoping someone else will fight our battles.”

It is easy to wax nostalgic, but why do you think the best days are still ahead of us?

 

Blumenthal: I think a definition of best would be in terms of consumer adoption, acceptance, and utilization. Many of these herbal products are mainstream now. Imagine, there was a time when yogurt was fringe. Yogurt! People forget how much of what we have today began in natural health stores.

In the last four years, during the worst economic recession since 1929, we continued to see positive growth of herbal dietary supplements, even after adjustment for inflation. That is indicative of consumer satisfaction and demand for these products. When we all started 30 to 40 years ago, the idea was not to keep these products to a few people, but to make these natural foods, plant-based foods, herbal products, minerals, etc., available to more people. That is the good news-that the demand is continuing to grow.

 

Lauritzen: If you could share some wisdom or advice with the next generation what would it be?

 

Blumenthal: About advice, as the old saying goes, “A wise person doesn’t need it, and a fool won’t heed it, so why bother?” But since you asked: Follow your heart. Follow your bliss. Do what you think is right, even when there are obstacles in your path. If you are truly committed and you remember that it is always about service and not about you, you will succeed. When you go home at night, you have to feel that you have contributed. That was what the industry elders like your parents knew.

 

Lauritzen: You just described my parents perfectly. Everything they did was for people, and the people they served motivated them through the hard times.