A campaign last year by natural health advocacy group the New Zealand Wellness Association (NZWA) played a pivotal role in seeing off divisive new legislation proposed for regulation of  supplements and natural remedies. Now, NZWA is swinging behind a new Bill – The Food (Health Supplements) Amendment Bill – which, it says, will create a regulatory climate that encourages innovation and strengthens the hand of smaller, specialist New Zealand suppliers. 

Here, NZWA’s co-founder and general manager, Joanne Bisset, talks to Natural Products Global about the group’s on-going mission to widen consumer access to natural health products and help people to take charge of their health. 
Natural Products Global: Can you tell me a bit about your personal involvement in the natural health movement/industry, and your reasons for co-founding the New Zealand Wellness Association?
Joanne Bisset: I became really interested in a natural health approach from my own health challenges, and those of friends and family.  This lead me to study naturopathy, which I’m doing part time at a college here in Auckland (South Pacific College of Natural Medicine). I passionately believe that this area has so much value to add to an overburdened health system. The current regulatory system is preventing natural health from reaching many people that could benefit from it.
I got in touch with a group of small companies that were working to stop the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill and we decided that with my legal background and natural health focus, I could lead the charge for NZWA’s cause.  We also saw a gap in the market for an overarching body that could help coordinate the great work that many of the smaller wellness companies are working on.  So we’ve got some wider plans for the work and community initiatives that NZWA will be working on in the future, including an upcoming event on the critical role of nutrition in mental health – watch this space.

“I passionately believe that this area has so much value to add to an overburdened health system. The current regulatory system is preventing natural health from reaching many people that could benefit from it”

NPG: As a bit of general context, can you tell me a little about the natural health products scene in New Zealand – some idea of market size, key product categories, level of export activity? 
JB: The market size is estimated to be approximately $1.4billion, with exports valued at over $285million. Our biggest exporter is New Image Group, which has a key focus on colostrum products. Our key export countries are Australia, Hong Kong and China, with China being the biggest focus for many exporters.
NPG: What would you say are the current defining characteristics of the NZ industry/market? 
JB: The market is expanding, with a lot of direct-to-consumer as well as retail sales. This trend looks set to continue as more New Zealanders start taking more care of their own health. The biggest issue in the market is the extremely restrictive regulations around making claims about products. We are not able to make even the most basic health claims about products that are known to work, or are backed up by good research. This causes problems for NZ producers, who like many around the world are competing with Iherb and Amazon. Claims made in the US cannot be made in NZ for exactly the same product, which makes it difficult for NZ companies to compete on a level playing field.
New Zealand Story also recognises that “Our country is perceived as being safe and ethical, having a strong link to nature and natural processes, and we are trusted to do business with”, which makes us a desirable country to receive products from.
NPG: Could you also tell me a bit about the NZ retail landscape/mix. Is there, for example, a strong independent natural health channel? 
JB: Online sales are becoming increasingly popular and many NZ consumers turn to websites like iHerb and Amazon. The retail landscape is mostly dominated by a few major NZ-owned chains, like Health 2000 and Hardys, which both have an online presence, and HealthPost, which has an online presence only.  Products are also sold widely in chemists, including Australian companies like Chemist Warehouse.
NPG: Could you identify some of the bigger trends/market drivers in the NZ market in recent years? 
JB: NZ is following international trends, in that the wellness sector is growing rapidly as people are being more proactive in their health.  The younger generation is driving a lot of this change, with needing to know what they’re putting in their bodies and where their food is coming from and environmental considerations.
NPG: What was the background to the Natural Health & Supplementary Products Bill, and who were its principal architects? 
JB: The previous bill was heavily promoted by big Australian firms and some Australian politicians who wanted NZ to adopt the same expensive regulatory regime Australia has. The Australian firms were supported by a small number of the bigger NZ producers who also saw the need for expensive regulation that would have kept small NZ companies out of the market.
The main claim of the proponents of the old bill was that we needed expensive regulation to allow us to export. This simply wasn’t true, as the export market has grown rapidly, and NZ companies are free to comply with any other country’s regulations if they choose to.

“The main claim of the proponents of the old bill was that we needed expensive regulation to allow us to export. This simply wasn’t true”

NPG: How did the specialist natural health sector mobilise against the Bill, and how did NZWA become involved and help shape the currently proposed legislation? 
JB: Members of the industry worked closely with politicians to see the unpopular previous bill get discontinued after the previous election. The previous bill had been initiated mid last decade, but had not progressed through parliament to become law. We made some cogent arguments about the way the market had changed since then, and how a modern law needs to reflect these changes. We also emphasised the need to prevent big firms from placing barriers to entry to competitors through expensive regulatory regimes, and that NZ consumers should be allowed to make choices about their own health.
NPG: How would you differentiate NZWA from other advocacy and trade groups?
JB: We have a different remit to the trade groups, where there is often a strong export focus. At the New Zealand Wellness Association we’re all about initiatives that support consumers. Our own focus is on finding ways that help the natural sector grow and thrive, and that focus is not necessarily on products. It’s more about empowering people to take charge of their own health. Throughout this process, we also support businesses to create great quality products to improve the health of New Zealanders and to export these products to the rest of the world.
NPG: Parts of New Zealand’s natural products industry were very vocally supportive of the previously proposed legislation. What is your sense of the current mood in the industry, and the reaction to the advance of the new Member’s Bill? 
JB: Well I think there was obviously disappointment that their Bill was removed – a lot of hours had gone into it. But the feedback on the new Bill has been positive so far. And we’ll work with other bodies to try to find a solution for everyone. 
NPG: What’s next for NZWA, and the new Bill?
JB: Getting it to the Member’s Bill stage is an important first step. Our ideal outcome would be for this Bill to go straight through. I just feel so passionate about a natural health approach and believe it has so much value to add to an already over-burdened health system. So, we’ll be working hard to push that message out and hopefully start to see more of a mainstream uptake of what we’re doing in the natural movement.