Natural on the Hill

Written By:
Tim Person
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If hoofing it up, down, around and beneath Capitol Hill at the 16th annual Natural Products Day taught me one thing, it’s that our elected officials must be taking their vitamins. That’s the only way they’d have the physical and mental energy to navigate the labyrinthine series of hallways, stairwells and offices that comprise and connect the Senate and House office buildings.

Those that do take their vitamins know the value of protecting our access to natural products, or at least they should, particularly in light of their preventive health benefits. Others need more convincing. Bridging that gap and keeping our national policy makers up to date on the interests of the natural products industry is the goal of this annual lobbying event, organized by the Natural Product Association (NPA) and held this year on March 19th. WholeFoods was honored to attend and bear witness to the efforts of NPA members, including many independent retailers, to connect with and educate their state’s representatives. 

Prepping to Lobby

 
  NPA president Jeff Wright

The day began in Washington, D.C., in a hotel ballroom on the other side of town from Capitol Hill, where attendees were drilled over breakfast on the finer points of lobbying successfully. NPA highlighted its placement of notices about Natural Products Day, to announce the industry’s presence, in all of the key Capitol Hill print outlets. NPA president Jeff Wright also offered some words of encouragement, which were especially useful to first-timers unsure of how to approach their task: “These elected officials want to hear from you.” The NPA’s newly adopted stance on GMO labeling was also introduced, and this turned out to be an important topic on the day in many meetings.

Speakers from NPA reviewed the relevant materials, including appointment schedules, talking points and position papers that were to be brought to meetings and left behind for reference. A favorite “leave-behind” sheet created by the NPA depicted the outline of a state’s borders, with green dots representing the location of all the independent natural retailers within the districts and states of elected officials. Attendees were told to emphasize their status as valued political constituents and employers, and to end each meeting with at plan for following up on the issues discussed. Stephanie Vance, advocacy guru with Advocacy Associates, noted to those in attendance, “One seven-minute meeting a year does not an advocate make.”

 

Two professional lobbyists for the natural products industry then walked us through the details of NPA’s positions on key legislation, like the Dietary Supplement Labeling Act (think “more onerous bureaucracy and red tape for manufacturers”). At one point, one of the lobbyists coughed while at the podium, and a caring retailer chirped, “We have something for that!” Retailers were indeed engaged and asking questions during this segment. They were advised to suggest that their representatives join the bipartisan Congressional Dietary Supplement Caucus, and to invite them out to their stores and facilities to see what natural products are all about.

As the majority of meetings were to be held with young staffers and not the representatives themselves, time was spent on how to relate to them, especially on a personal level. It was stressed that a meeting with a staffer is not a disappointment or a waste of time. On the contrary, they can be a valuable asset, as they are often the ones writing the memos that lead to national policy.

Boot camp adjourned, and attendees filed onto buses to be taken over to Capitol Hill for a group photo, before the day’s meetings commenced.

Face to Face

My itinerary saw me trail NPA CEO and executive director John Shaw, for whom this was the first go around at Natural Products Day. He has been recognized as a top lobbyist, having earned his stripes in other industries, but says he feels a connection to the cause of natural products, for all the good they do for people everywhere, and due to the passion of those in the industry.

 
  (from L to R): Jim Palko, Debbie Palko, Congressman Pete Visclosky, Steve Palko and NPA CEO John Shaw

Shaw spearheaded the group’s effort to connect with elected officials and their staffers, attending a series of key meetings alongside NPA members that hailed from each official’s home state. First up in the House of Representatives office complex was a sit down with Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-IN), attended by Shaw and a group from natural products wholesalers Palko Distributing, based in Indiana.

After swapping stories from their home state and talking generally about the value of preventive health care, including from an economic perspective, they got down to the business of policy. The Dietary Supplement Labeling Act, and the industry’s position against it, was brought to the representative’s attention, as well as a discussion of the NPA’s position that GMO labeling should be addressed at the federal level. A long-term relationship, focused on influencing policy in favor of the natural products industry, appeared to have been established.

Afterwards, Shaw generalized about perhaps the most important legislative focus of NPA’s lobbying efforts: preserving the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act of 1994. “We’re making sure that constituents are going to see who they need to see, to address key legislation, and to protect DSHEA at all costs.”

Though different legislative movements, threatening and beneficial, come and go for the industry, protecting the baseline of regulation and protection established by that law will always be the central theme, according to Shaw.  The idea is to continually build and strengthen a coalition that is well-positioned to protect DSHEA at a moment’s notice, should any legislation directly or indirectly threaten to open it back up for change.

In a meeting with a staffer in the office of Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Lester Burks of Pikeville, TN-based Life Line Foods emphasized his status as a constituent and his company’s importance as an employer in the community. He extended an invite, as was to happen in many meetings, for the Senator to visit their facility.

 
  (from L to R): NPA Northwest's Mary Ann Hunt and Jessica Miller, NPA president-elect Roxanne Green and NPA CEO John Shaw at Senator Patty Murray's office.

Legislatively, Burks cited funding issues for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the regulatory authority FDA already wields over the supplement industry, as factors tending to discount the need for the Dietary Supplement Labeling Act. Burks commented afterwards, “As an NPA member, and as a member of my community, to be able to have a voice on regulations is important. If I don’t speak up, no one is going to know what people in my community think and believe.”

In a highly productive afternoon meeting with a staffer from the office of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), leaders from the Northwest office of the NPA presented an issue that hit close to home. Pending decisions on the legality genetically modified salmon are of importance to the state of Washington, which relies on a stable fishing industry. Similarly, a ballot initiative to label GMOs in foods is also underway in Washington, and though he noted that the NPA supports the efforts of states to determine their own policies, Shaw repeatedly explained throughout the day their position that a national GMO labeling standard is preferable.

Other notable meetings WholeFoods was privy to included ones with the offices of Senator Barbra Boxer (D-CA), Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ). Senator Boxer is a noted industry ally, and her staffers reportedly pricked up their ears at the prospect of getting involved with the GMO labeling issue.

Senator Durbin has often been at odds with the industry, and is in fact the driving force behind the Dietary Supplement Labeling Act, which NPA opposes. The meetings with his office in years past have been a mostly frustrating experience for the Illinois delegation, according to Suzanne Shelton, president of industry PR firm The Shelton Group, Skokie, IL. Of this year’s edition, which as in the past consisted of a meeting with Durbin’s legislative assistant assigned to the natural products industry, Shelton says, “We began the meeting by saying there are two areas where we should have common ground: GMO labeling and the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control act. She was guardedly positive about those topics.”

 
  (from L to R):  Kelly Jordan, Jim Roza, Congressman Frank Pallone and NPA CEO John Shaw. Pallone received the NPA Congressional Champion Award.

The meeting with Frank Pallone included the representative himself, and was emblematic of what a positive relationship with an elected official can look like for the industry. James Roza of Reliance Vitamin thanked him for his support of the industry, and in discussion, Pallone seemed to recognize the burden that DSLA could place on the industry. “I just think it’s very important to have access to dietary supplements. Ever since entering congress in 1988, I’ve been very supportive of the industry,” said Pallone, who attributes his affinity for healthy living to his mother’s early emphasis on vitamins and eating right. To recognize this relationship, Shaw presented the representative with the NPA’s Congressional Champion Award.

There were other issues discussed in many of the meetings that day, from the industry’s support for both the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act and the Family and Retirement Health Investment Act of 2011. The former would expand the list of banned substances in supplements, helping to clean up the industry, and the latter would allow individuals with a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) from their healthcare to use those dollars on dietary supplement purchases.

Judging the Impact

Asked how one might quantify the success or ongoing effect of such an event, Shaw said, “We’ll see what impact our members can have on legislation, and we’ll see how we as a trade organization can impact amendments to legislation going forward.” The amendments he speaks of are a focus point. As all who are experienced in the ways of Congress know, many important statutes are passed into law on short notice, either as last minute adjustments or attachments to larger bills.

Shaw was also quick to recognize all that goes into pulling off a production like Natural Products Day, as he thanked NPA communications coordinator Lauren Cohen and the entire NPA staff for their work in ensuring things went smoothly. As pages and pages of scheduled meetings with legislators attested to me, there was a lot of work involved. But Shaw knows the precious interaction with national decision makers is worth it. “It’s our opportunity to give them our collective point of view,” he said.

Michael Anderson, a first time attendee from The Sunspot Natural Market in Indiana and a member of the NPA’s Midwest board, summed it up from the retailer’s perspective. “Our stores have been in existence for 35 years. I was interested in this experience, and wanted to see what it was about.” He went on, “Supplements are the lifeblood of our industry. If any legislation were to come down that affected the industry, as a family owned business, that affects me and my kids.”

For more information on this annual lobbying event and the NPA’s positions on key legislation, visit www.npainfo.org.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, May 2013