The Dietary Supplement Consumer Bill of Rights

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy urged us to seek consumer protection by suggesting a Consumer Bill of Rights, and he was right, but no one could have anticipated the changes in the marketplace (in total and online) some 55 years later. Yet what was conceived in 1962 must also hold true today, and therein lies opportunity. At the time, Kennedy challenged the government to work to assist the ordinary citizen to attain necessary protection:

“If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.”

While the famously successful challenge by President Kennedy to land a man on the moon has received the most attention, and rightfully so, the task of creating consumer protection resulted in a myriad of government protection programs. Following the 1962 speech, Congress passed the Truth in Lending Act, fair credit and reporting practices, debt collection legislation, safety standards for cars, and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. States also worked to reinforce consumer protection practices. The anniversary of the speech, in fact, March 15, is now celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day. 

Kennedy’s Consumer Bill of Rights consisted of the right to be safe, be heard, choose freely and to be informed. The meanings behind this message have only grown in importance since that fateful speech. Let’s take a look.

 

  • The right to be safe: to be protected against the marketing of goods which are hazardous to health or life.

How e-commerce fails this consumer right: 

Trust Transparency Center has used independent analytical labs implementing validated testing methodologies to test hundreds of dietary supplement products purchased from Amazon and other e-commerce retailers. Dozens of brands failed to meet 90% of label claim and many had no active ingredient at all. 

In July 2019, Amazon was forced by Proctor and Gamble to recall counterfeit Align probiotic products. 

The FDA has provided dozens of Warning Letters to dietary supplement companies indicating the presence prescription pharmaceuticals like steroids or antidepressants. Almost all of these FDA Warning Letters involved brands distributed outside of a brick and mortar retailer; usually the distribution occurred through channels such as direct to consumer, mail order or e-commerce retailers. CVS recently announced plans to independently test every brand of nutritional supplements carried in its stores. 

It is important to note the right to be safe is not limited to physical harm. If a consumer purchases a product based upon claims made and the product fails to contain ingredients which could provide that benefit, the consumer receives no physical harm. But the consumer has likely decided no benefit exists from the dietary supplement. When the consumer establishes the product did not help, they lose the ability to benefit from legitimate products. Worse yet, the failed consumer may take the misguided attitude that dietary supplements, in general, do not provide benefit. 

How Natural Products Retailers provide protection to consumers: 

Few products have more opportunity to provide both benefit and harm than dietary supplements. It is important to note that e-commerce retailers have repeatedly been protected from liability for the offering of faulty products. Conversely, physical retailers are held legally liable for the safety of products they provide. 

Retailers have the ability and responsibility to reinforce the safety and efficacy of the supplement brands they carry by establishing criteria for the brands they carry and through education and research.

 

  • The right to be informed: to be protected against fraudulent, deceitful, or grossly misleading information, advertising, labeling, or other practices, and to be given the facts he needs to make an informed choice.

How e-commerce fails this consumer right: Information through e-commerce is not always factual. Due to the sheer number of Amazon products it is impossible for them to adequately screen every submission. Complicated algorithms that “scrub” and review data exist but many issues are brought to the attention of Amazon through consumer reviews and complaints, all of which occur post- purchase.

It is no secret Amazon retailers covet the 5-star reviews. Some e-tailers spend more time finding ways to generate more top-rated reviews than trying to improve accuracy or effectiveness of their offerings. In February 2019, the FTC levied a fine of $12.8 million on an online company, Cure Encapsulations, for buying fake reviews. Cure had over 14,000 reviews for its weight-loss product with a reported 63% to be “unreliable.” The product was a weight-loss offering with Garcinia Cambogia Extract claiming the product “literally stops fat from forming.” The FTC said the claims were unsubstantiated. Cure Encapsulations negotiated a settlement with FTC and was allowed to pay only $50,000 at the time with the remaining to be paid if the Owner was ever caught making the same errors in the future.

Amazon has launched its own brands and presumably one would expect no gaming of this part of the system. Amazon does not allow Sellers to buy reviews unless the reviews are bought through Amazon’s own authorized Vine Program. The Vine program invites reviewers to receive free product from brands, including its own Elements brand. Amazon explains how reviewers are invited to the Vine Program

“Customers who consistently write helpful reviews and develop a reputation for expertise in specific product categories are most likely to be invited into the program.” 

Not surprisingly, Amazon Vine Reviewers rarely give bad reviews to Amazon products. 

How Natural Products Retailers provide protection to consumers:

The dietary supplement industry is often painted with a broad brush as irresponsible and fraudulent. This is far from the truth and natural products retailers, as objective and knowledgeable educators, can cultivate positive engagement to inform and reassure consumers and to help protect against fraudulent, deceitful, or grossly misleading information, advertising, labeling, or other practices. Retailers can provide the facts consumers need to make informed choices and refuse to carry products with outlandish claims.

Consumers deserve to receive ample and accurate information. The knowledge provided through your store is dynamic and committed, unlike the hundreds of short five-star rankings of questionable origin.

 

  • The right to choose freely: to be assured, whenever possible, access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices; and in those industries in which competition is not workable and Government regulation is substituted, an assurance of satisfactory quality and service at fair prices.

How e-commerce fails this consumer right: 

There are thousands of brands on Amazon indicating a cornucopia of options, presumably objectively presented. Are all options presented fairly? 

Amazon has come under considerable criticism for a variety of practices related to how it offers its own private brands, of which there are over 100. The most obvious criticism is leveled at the placement of private brands in comparison to other sellers. Imagine if your cashiers were to greet every consumer with a “suggested store brand,” with an implied level of equivalence, just before checkout. The more concerning advantage, to many sellers, is that Amazon is the only seller amongst the millions of offerings that is allowed “gating” privileges. Amazon has a rule for all other sellers that third-party sellers can also sell against the brand owner. The idea is the increased competition is good for the marketplace and specifically pricing. This logic falters when third-party sellers decide to blatantly reverse engineer, copy, adulterate or counterfeit the brand owner’s products. If a non-Amazon brand sells product at a substantial savings for Black Friday, Cyber Monday or Prime Week, other sellers can buy the product then resell it at a higher price when the sale is over, a practice called retail arbitrage. There are entire businesses dedicated to teaching how to make money with this activity.

How Natural Products Retailers provide this protection to consumers:

Your store has access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices. Retailers have the resources to provide its customers an assurance of satisfactory quality and service at fair prices. Due diligence on your part can go a long way to provide the consumer the protections they deserve.

 

  • The right to be heard: to be assured that consumer interests will receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of Government policy, and fair and expeditious treatment in its administrative tribunals.

How e-commerce fails this consumer right: Amazon contends the consumer establishes what is valued in the marketplace. Jeff Bezos has repeatedly cried out this overarching theme of his customer-centric company. The customer decides what products will survive in the marketplace. Reviews are the voice of the consumer. Third party sellers provide an increased level of competition benefitting the consumer with price and selection. This theology would be wonderful if true. Reviews are continuously questioned. Purchased reviews, either by Amazon or its sellers, repeatedly harm, not help, consumers by lessening the voice of the consumer. In 2018, Jeff Bezos gave a 60 Minutes interview where he stated that trust is one of the most important components. An eroding trust is creeping into what was positioned as a customer-centric company. Sellers increasingly vent their frustration with this marketplace, whether with its increasing requirements or unfair market positioning against Amazon-owned brands. Amazon’s sellers are increasingly feeling like competitors as opposed to partners. Consumers are still seeking trust, especially when it comes to reviews. 

How Natural Products Retailers provide this protection to consumers:

Dietary supplement consumers almost always start out with an inquiry related to a specific concern, which allows natural products retailers to discover the specific needs of its customers. Retailers can guide the consumers in the right direction by answering the questions and even anticipating the concerns their customers are voicing. 

Retailers can focus on the trust opportunity. Distrust in the internet marketer has always been present in the e-commerce world and is continuing in the Amazon marketplace, primarily related to reviews. 

 

The path forward for Natural Products Retailers

Some 50 years later, the internet by itself has increased the ability and responsibility of all consumers, retailers and manufacturers to further commit to the tenets outlined in this Bill of Rights.

The Natural Products Retailer specifically has an opportunity to embrace and leverage the Consumer Bill of Rights and inform its customers of both the existence and importance of these rights with dietary supplements. 

As a Natural Products Retailer, you have the right and obligation to ask for answers from the brands you carry, to ask questions that are not routinely asked, but would be appreciated by your customer. Some of these questions might be:

  1. Where is the product made? (Not just “Manufactured in the USA” but specifically where and by what company).
  2. Where are the ingredients sourced and what standards for sourcing apply?
  3. What testing is used for both the inbound ingredients and the finished product?
  4. Are the test results, by product lot, available for inspection?
  5. Are there policies and procedures in place to adhere to FDA and CDC requirements to record and report adverse and serious adverse events?
  6. What storage conditions exist for specific products which could be negatively affected by harsh environments (i.e. probiotics)?
  7. Who is the designated Quality Control Trained Individual for each brand you carry? If necessary, can I talk with them?
  8. What is the ingredient vetting policy for each supplier?
  9. What stability testing is used to determine expiration dating?

These are some of the questions that can be asked of your brands, but rarely are they asked. Yet more and more consumers are beginning to ask these questions. 

President Kennedy was as aware of our privileges and rights as anyone, yet he found it important to remind us of the importance and value of these rights. We have the opportunity to serve our customers with this same message and remind them we recognize the value of these rights and to ensure these rights are both protected and promoted. 

Think about celebrating this year’s World Consumer Rights Day (March 15) with an in-store proclamation of support to your customers specifically addressing dietary supplements. 

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Scott Steinford, Founder, Trust Transparency Center
Scott Steinford has built a career of leading, learning and mentoring. Through immersion in many aspects of the supplement and pharmaceutical industry Scott has worked to redefine and improve business practices within the healthcare industry with an emphasis on transparency. His experience ranges from entry level to CEO and positions include organizations representing ingredient supplier, ingredient manufacturer, retail brand, private equity, M&A due diligence expert and trade organizations. Scott has a Pre-Law Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Texas at Arlington and a Master’s of Science Degree in Law from Champlain College. Scott currently is Executive Director for the CoQ10 Association and President of the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (NAXA) and Founder of Trust Transparency Center, a boutique consulting organization dedicated to assisting companies seeking to improve both their internal and external trust transparency. Scott’s prior experience includes CEO of Doctor’s Best and maintained a pivotal role with a variety of ingredient manufacturers including Eisai, Kaneka and was a founder of ZMC-USA.

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