Attendees of the 17th Annual Oxford Conference on the Science of Botanicals held last week in Oxford, MS, participated in a session called the ‘Dietary Supplements Town Hall Meeting,’ where participants could air grievances and share concerns. This was the first time a session at the conference, which was put on by the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi, featured an open question and answer format. The conference in the past has been tightly focused on science questions and still is, for the most part. But session organizers Rick Kingston, PharmD, of the University of Minnesota and Bill Gurley, PhD, of the University of Arkansas felt it was time as the conference and the industry grows to include some more market facing material.
As this was the first iteration, Kingston (who is also president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the consulting firm SafetyCall) and Gurley chose to kick things off with a focus on quality concerns in lieu of other pressing questions for the industry such as how the low barriers to entry give bad actors so much room to maneuver and how the Trump Administration’s attitude toward regulation might affect the sector. After all, to adequately address all concerns could have taken a week.
Which brands are the best?
“One of the most popular questions I get is ‘What brands can I rely on? Which ones are efficacious? Which ones are safe?’ ” Gurley said.
“The second most asked question is ‘How can I be sure that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle?’” Kingston said.
One attendee said that to some extent this is dealt with by market forces. Some major retailers selling selling supplements are starting to demand quality assurances from their vendors and are starting to reach back into the supply chain to dictate how these standards are met. The recent initiative on the part of the American Herbal Products Alliance and GNC is one example of how this is playing out in the marketplace. But Kingston said there are other forces at work pulling in the opposite direction.
“Unfortunately a lot of supplements are sold on the internet, where a lot of that traffic is poorly monitored,” Kingston said.
What does ‘quality’ mean for consumers?
One initiative that was mentioned, and praised, was the Supplement Safety and Compliance Initiative (SSCI) that was launched in January under the auspices of the Natural Products Alliance and includes GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, Walmart and Whole Foods Market. But Aaron Secrist, director of quality and R&D at NOW Foods, said it’s important to remember that while the SSCI is a laudable step forward, it’s no panacea.
“For SSCI there is no testing component. It’s an auditing function,” Secrist told the attendees.
Larisa Pavlick, vice president of regulatory and compliance at the United Natural Products Alliance, said the key is for industry to do a better job of educating consumers about how supplements are manufactured and what the gaps in that process might be. Pavlick recently came to UNPA after a multi-year career as an FDA inspector in the Denver office. Pavlick told NutraIngredients-USA that just walking the inside perimeter of a facility and looking at the floor-wall junction could tell her a lot about how a dietary supplement manufacturing facility was run.
“We need to do a better job of helping the consumers to understand what the quality parameters of a dietary supplement really are,” Pavlick said.