In Response: Why the Dietary Supplements Industry Must Work Together with the New Congress

May 24, 2011

Why the Dietary Supplements Industry Must Work Together with the New Congress

Congress, with time and new leadership, changes. What remains constant is the importance of the dietary supplement industry’s commitment to developing and maintaining relationships with key legislators. More than six months into the 112th Congress, we have learned that the new members of Congress could benefit from more education about dietary supplement regulation and about the health benefits these products offer consumers. We must not forget that current industry champions and friends started similarly to this new crop of 112 freshman-without significant knowledge of the supplement industry, its products, or its consumers. And while orienting these new faces, we must continue to educate those already knowledgeable, ensuring that our issues remain fresh in their minds.

While challenging, the industry’s quest to educate new members of Congress presents many opportunities to develop allies and make friends. Already the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC) has visited with each new legislator’s office and plans to continue meeting with a subset of this group throughout the year. This smaller group would comprise legislators who either 1) have dietary supplement facilities in their districts, or 2) sit on a committee that directly influences the supplement industry, such as the Committees on Energy and Commerce; Oversight and Government Reform; Ways and Means in the House of Representatives; and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) in the Senate.

When it comes to strengthening existing relationships with members of Congress, repetition and variety are critical components, meeting continually to ensure they remain well-informed of our positions. But those meetings need to be relevant. Once we’re past the introductory meeting, we must approach congressional offices with specific purposes in mind-such as co-signing letters, supporting meaningful legislation, or joining the Dietary Supplement Caucus.

Based on the continuous outreach efforts we’ve been involved in for many years now, our industry has made progress in getting our positions understood. We’ve engaged more legislative offices than ever before. But as importantly, CRN has paid particular attention to clarifying our concerns and positions to those congressional offices that have the most impact on our issues. For example, the chairmen of the two most powerful committees with jurisdiction over the supplement industry-Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) on the Energy and Commerce Committee and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) on the Senate HELP Committee-are well-informed about the dietary supplement industry and related regulation, have personally toured supplement facilities, have built strong relationships with key dietary supplement companies, and are willing to delve into complicated regulation that affects our consumers. We are fortunate to have such strong leaders who understand and support our industry. But this was not always the case. If we examine how these important committee chairmen went from being new legislators to being supportive leaders of the supplement industry, the answer can be found in education and responsibility-and in both cases, the supplement industry holds that key.

The dietary supplement industry must take education seriously-we must put in the time and the effort. And each of us must take responsibility for ensuring companies are manufacturing high-quality, safe, and beneficial products, and following the law. If our friends on the Hill put their reputations on the line to support the industry, in return we have to make them proud of the products we produce.

Adapting to the new political environment and engaging continuously with those working on Capitol Hill is critical for the dietary supplement industry’s success. Aside from relying solely on trade associations, industry stakeholders must also get involved by forming and maintaining congressional relationships of their own. In the words of former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, “All politics is local.” So begin today by inviting your local Representative or Senator or a staff person to tour your facility.

All of our combined efforts will not only maximize our reach, but will leave a lasting impression on those still trying to grasp what our industry is all about. You never know who that next great industry champion will be. He or she may be in your own backyard.