In the U.S., dietary supplements and their ingredients are subject to a patchwork of regulations, industry guidances, voluntary certifications, and audit programs. With some exceptions, few of our standards have been developed with expert consensus and then broadly implemented by industry. FDA’s dietary supplement Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) are part of the exception, and have made today’s supplement products generally a higher level of quality than at any time before.
Yet few industry standards are clearly understood, consistently applied, and sufficiently comprehensive to cover all the ground. One primary example lies in the gap between compliance requirements for dietary ingredients (under food GMP) and dietary supplements, whose GMP framework is derived from that for pharmaceuticals. The underlying litmus test for the level of safety demanded for supplements and foods are different – that of ‘non-adulteration’ versus ‘safe for human consumption’. Maybe due to the differences, supplement GMP audit programs often tend to overlook the food GMP that governs ingredients. So it is not uncommon for a manufacturer and a supplier to speak completely different quality languages. Audits for supplement GMP are frequently unable to determine to a reasonable degree of certainty whether a particular ingredient, based on its COA, should be expected to meet supplement requirements once it is placed inside a capsule or tablet.
As could be expected, an unintended consequence of this gap is the common practice of a raw material certificate of analysis being simply duplicated as the manufacturer’s raw material specification. In this scenario, an ingredient specification has been developed according to food requirements, and often without any further analysis or verification, is assumed to meet the requirements of the finished supplement. The end result is a supplement that is essentially of no better quality than the “food-grade” ingredients put into it.
For botanicals and animal-derived raw materials, there is the added dimension of cultivation and processing before they are made into usable ingredients. This is a complicated problem, particularly for a global supply chain of agricultural materials that may or may not pick up contaminants during farming, harvesting, processing, storage or transportation to the ingredient processing facility. These contaminants may not be necessarily listed on the specification or controlled by the food GMP, yet can cause the supplements to which they are added to be adulterated.
Then there are the dozens of standards written for agricultural products, many of which don’t (or can’t) apply to the small family farmer that are a predominant source of botanical raw materials. In addition to recent FSMA requirements for fresh produce (which don’t really apply to dried agricultural materials), we also have USDA Good Agricultural Practices (which are intended for large farms and seldom fully practiced in the U.S.); NOP Organic (which requires no testing for contaminants like pesticides that may cause a product to be adulterated); independent farm standards like Global G.A.P. (also intended for large, modernized industrial farms); and dozens of Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) for medicinal plants that have been independently written by various nations and trade groups.
There are those who say that the mess of standards, the dynamics of industry, and the law of entropy do not support the possibility of a clear and unified regulatory structure. Yet there are many others who recognize the limitations, yet remain busy sewing the patches together into a quilt that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Fortunately, a number of initiatives are in process or recently completed that contribute to the integrity of our industry quilt, and have provided a lot of free information. Just in the past couple years:
- The U.S. Pharmacopoeia and American Herbal Pharmacopoeia have developed a number of monographs and methods for testing dietary supplement ingredients.
- USP has also developed a Food Fraud Mitigation Database that lists adulterants common for food ingredients
- AOAC International has developed a number of analytical methods for dietary supplement ingredient potency and contaminants.
- The NIH Office of Dietary Supplements website has become a valuable source of information and resources.
- Trade groups like the American Herbal Products Association and American Botanical Council have made enormous efforts to educate and guide the industry on issues around botanical dietary ingredients and adulteration, including a recently updated draft GACP from AHPA, and the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program.
- The Supplement Online Wellness Library (or OWL) was established by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, to allow labels for supplement products on the U.S. market to be put into in one place.
- The Supplement Safety and Compliance Initiative (SSCI) was formed as a broad industry initiative, with wide support from the trade associations, to address some of the gaps for supplements that aren’t sufficiently covered under other standards. SSCI is led by a number of experienced players in retail, manufacturing and supply, and includes a focus on identity, risk assessment and quality for raw materials.
- In response to consumer demand, a number of leading retailers, manufacturers and ingredient suppliers have invested significant resources into traceability and quality, and are now able to make meaningful claims to these effects that are not only important to consumers, but also serve as a reliable way to differentiate from the competition.
Today’s movement towards a greater level of education and transparency includes a firming of the gaps, especially where raw material traceability and quality are concerned. Successful companies across the entire supply chain are actively improving and adopting new standards as they come along, building a level of quality and integrity that provides lasting value to their business. Those who are upping their game are piecing together a quilt of their own, leveraging their quality advantages into claims that deliver marketing value. On the other side, those who continue to rely on ignorance or a lack of regulatory clarity as reason to take no action are increasingly left behind.
In an industry where faceless online product marketers are more common than they should be, and where a list of the tens of thousands of products on the market is just getting kicked off, efforts to fill in the gaps of our patchwork are probably a good thing for everyone.
First published in Natural Products Insider