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Natural Products Association

A natural watchdog
If you have ever tried a natural deodorant or an eco-friendly cleaning spray, chances are that product’s manufacturer or retailer is a member of the Natural Products Association.

Founded in 1936, the Natural Products Association is the country’s largest and oldest non-profit organization of its kind dedicated to the natural products industry, which includes but is not limited to: foods, dietary supplements, as well as health and beauty aids. About 50 percent of the board of directors is made up of manufacturers and the other half are retailers whose products you might find in a health foods store, such as Whole Foods. While members are typically from the retailer and manufacturing circles, this organization also draws in wholesalers and distributors of natural products. By current estimates, more than 2,000 retail members and over 450 supplier members are proudly affiliated with NPA.

Between those two groups, there are 10,000 locations across the country. Most of the association’s membership grew from the dietary supplements side—that is, minerals and supplements—but has recently been attracting producers of personal care products much like those brought to you by Burt’s Bees and Tom’s of Maine. The dietary supplement side of the business has grown exponentially to become a $25 billion industry; to put that in perspective the natural products is a $100 billion industry.

With such industry growth it is only natural to have formalities and rules. Being headquartered in Washington, D.C. as a result has given this association a solid footing to serve as the industry watchdog on regulatory and legislative issues. Because the NPA is mostly focused on advocacy work it only makes sense that it is also one of main reasons why members join the organization in the first place. “Our primary goal is to preserve that regulatory structure from those policymakers who try to introduce, in our point of view, redundant new regulations,” tells John Gay, executive director and CEO of Natural Products Association (NPA).

Advocacy a key focus

As the industry picked up over the years, the association has evolved with itmeanwhile keeping an eye on any regulatory measures that may affect its members’ business. “The natural products industry has grown especially more recently, with the passage of DSHEADietary Supplement Health and Education Act—which clarified what can be placed on the store shelves by law. For example, before the passage of this law dietary supplements were neither fish nor fowl so these products weren’t identified in the regulatory world,” explains Gay, adding that NPA’s main objective is to preserve DSHEA. “It’s a real partnership between retail and suppliers. We also advocate to the rights of the consumers, to have their choice of products that will hopefully improve their health,” tells Gay.

But this past year, the association faced the most serious challenge to DSHEA of all time. “The bill [S.3002] introduced by Arizona Senator John McCain, would have undone the current regulatory scheme for dietary supplements and altered DSHEA in ways that would have been tremendously negative for the industry and consumer, alike with no real added consumer protection,” says Gay. But the coalition to preserve DSHEA, composed of a number of groups, led by the NPA, launched a fierce letter-writing campaign, most by email.  After a flood of communications from the coalition and others, it was only a matter of months when the two senators withdrew support of their own bill. Instead of opening up DSHEA, they are now working with industry champions such as Senator Orrin Hatch on some more specific steps, particularly looking at ways to deal with the problem of steroids being placed into supplements by the “bad actors.”

Apart from its advocacy work, members also benefit from its regulatory programs. “We were the first organization to establish a good manufacturing practices program (GMP). Other groups like NSF have used our program as the basis of theirs. We establish standards that were approved well over 10 years ago, on the types of manufacturing processes of the dietary supplementary world that would be appropriate; we also have a program where a supplier can have auditors come in and make sure their process meets this standard,” explains Gay. Since the NPA first established these standards, he says, the Food and Drug Administration has drafted and released their own set of GMPs. Now, the NPA has modified its initial standards so they comply with the FDA’s final GMP rule.

NPA-China initiative

In addition to its offices in Washington, D.C., the NPA also is affiliated with five regional NPAs located throughout the United States. But more recently, the association was encouraged by the U.S. government to open an office in Beijing, China in order to better assist U.S. companies to export their natural products to this rapidly expanding market. “The driver behind this initiative is that China is a unique country, given its size and slice o the world economy. It is the number one supplier of ingredients to the U.S. for the industry,” points out Gay. “It is also potentially the biggest market in the world for natural products, if it develops the appropriate regulatory framework, to allow the industry grow there,” he adds.

By July 2006, the Natural Products Association had opened its office overseas, as well as hired the office director Jeff Crowther. In October 2007, the Natural Products Association was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce (USDOC), receiving both financial and collaborative support from USDOC through the department’s Market Development Cooperator Program (MDCP).

The association works closely with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as well as USDOC in Washington, D.C. to accomplish its China initiatives, such as regulatory advocacy, quality assurance and testing program for Chinese ingredients, trade missions, trade shows, educational seminars, product registration services and communications. One of the ways the NPA is working on improving the overall flow of imports from China to the U.S. is through some programming. For instance, there is a testing program in place with USP as the testing service provider, which ultimately assists Chinese market producers by adding transparency to their ingredients, which will allow U.S. firms to use quality as a platform to expand market share.

Looking into the future, NPA plans to continue to work with governments and stakeholders to develop regulatory frameworks that allow the industry to grow but also encourage U.S. companies to grow and expand abroad.
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