In a Nutshell: Today, more consumers are interested in products that are organic, sustainable, and ethically manufactured. The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) works with its member companies to achieve the highest standard of quality in the production of botanical products. Even the integrity of the supply chain is important to consumers who pay more for organic goods. And AHPA is constantly innovating ways to move the herbal industry forward, including setting manufacturing standards for medical marijuana and supporting a coalition of farmers who help each other meet product demands, among other initiatives. Over its three decades, the organization has helped create standards in the botanical industry and improve product quality — from seed to shelf.
Consumers in the US are growing more interested in buying products made with natural ingredients. As health care bills increase and people become more conscientious about fair-trade retail practices, they seek out ethically developed herbal products to improve the quality of their lives.
In the US, sales of herbal supplements increased by 7.7% in 2016 compared to the previous year, surpassing the $7 billion mark for the first time, according to the HerbalGram.
The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) is at the forefront of the movement to ensure botanical products are sustainable, thoroughly examined, and of high quality by working with the companies that create and distribute them. More than 350 companies work alongside the AHPA to enforce herbal product regulation and improve manufacturing and distribution techniques.
“We partner with companies that are growing, manufacturing, and selling herbs and herbal products, as well as groups that support the herbal industry. That includes law offices, insurance companies, and analytical labs that test to ensure ingredients meet specifications,” said Haley Chitty, Director of Communications at AHPA.
On the shelves, trucks, and manufacturing lines of AHPA partner companies, you’ll find dietary supplements, cosmetics, foods, spices, and even pet care goods. The companies share trade practices and regulatory information with the AHPA to define and implement industry-wide standards.
Different federal regulations, requirements, and laws govern each sub-strata of the herbal industry, and like-minded companies often work together with the AHPA with the common goal of propelling the industry forward.
“We want to make sure the products are as consistent as they can be. Plants vary from year to year, but we work to ensure quality and consistency,” Haley said.
Solving Challenges Through Education and Self-Regulation
The main reason that botanical companies seek out the AHPA is for the wealth of industry knowledge the organization shares with its members.
Businesses starting out in the industry face challenges that go beyond quality and consistency. For example, a budding tea company may not be educated on every step in its process: growing plants, developing sustainable tea bags, packaging goods appropriately, and finding proper distribution channels.
“We help them take advantage of opportunities, find creative solutions for challenges, and we have committees that address various issues,” Haley said. “And our members come together to solve shared problems.” From regulatory to market issues, AHPA members help each other identify needs and coordinate solutions through guidance documents and educational webinars.
The organization also helps companies differentiate themselves.
“We have policies, a code of ethics, best practices, guidance, and trade requirements, to help member companies go above and beyond what is required by law to meet consumers’ demand for quality and transparency,” Haley said.
Additionally, members have the opportunity to network with colleagues by attending AHPA events where they can discuss what’s impacting them, discover new distribution opportunities, and learn more about where the herbal industry is headed.
AHPA holds a number of educational events, including webinars focused on both common issues and new industry challenges. The company also has in-person training events that focus on teaching technical skills such as microscopy for botanical identification and scientific methods to authenticate ingredients.
“We also have our Botanical Congress every year in Las Vegas in cooperation with SupplySide West — a big natural ingredient supply trade show — where we look at emerging market trends, supply chain management strategies, and the latest science being used by the industry to ensure quality,” Haley said.
Growing Interest in Where Ingredients Originate and the Path to Shelf
Because of the botanical industry’s success and potential for growth, many larger companies have entered the space by purchasing smaller, established herbal businesses.
“The industry has seen steady growth because there’s growing consumer interest in natural ingredients over synthetically made ingredients,” Haley said. From a consumer standpoint, there’s also a desire to know the full story behind a product — from origin to shelf.
People are purchasing more local and sustainable ingredients that are also farmed and manufactured ethically. And that trend is seen in everything from a clothing company using plant-based materials to a new restaurant with a farm-to-table concept.
“Natural product consumers are a concentrated version of this broader consumer trend toward wanting organic, sustainably grown, locally produced brands that are marks of quality,” Haley said.
To maintain its high standards, the AHPA rolled out recommendations in a document titled Good Agricultural and Collection Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices for Botanical Ingredients. “The document looks at everything from the farm to the manufacturing facility that receives the botanical ingredients; making sure there’s a shared understanding of what the best practices are and what you should be asking suppliers down the line,” Haley said.
The document is among AHPA’s most recent projects, serving as an empirical set of terms and ideas that the industry — as a whole — has embraced. Having such a document helps ensure the word “quality” has the same meaning across companies.
Farmers are Banding Together to Innovate and Solve for Market Demand
Some AHPA members are affecting change in how the industry carries itself and how companies work together. One such organization is the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition (ABFFC), which is seeking to increase the supply and sustainability of high-quality herbs.
The group came together to solve a common farmer dilemma: wild herbs — also known as wildcrafted herbs — are in higher demand than farmed herbs. The coalition solved this problem by finding a solution that is sustainable while also guaranteeing quality.
“Instead of just taking whatever’s out there, they’re actually planting them in a natural setting and getting a similar product to a wild-harvested herb, but with a little more thought toward sustainability,” Haley said.
“If one farmer has extra crops and another has less, they can come together to fill an order. It’s part of the nature of having botanical ingredients: you have to think of long-term solutions and build farmer communities that are compensated fairly.” — Haley Chitty, Director of Communications at AHPA
Another impactful organization is the Vermont Herb Growers Cooperative, a group of small farmers who pool resources to grow products and market them as a collective. As consumer demand grows for locally sourced, organic, ethically produced medicinal herbs and other crops, the VHGC has designed ways to meet it.
“If one farmer has extra crops and another has less, they can come together to fill an order. It’s part of the nature of having botanical ingredients: you have to think of long-term solutions and build farmer communities that are compensated fairly,” Haley said.
Herbal products have grown in popularity in part because consumers are focusing on living healthy, well-balanced lives.
Instead of taking drugs that may have side effects, consumers are looking at companies that produce cutting-edge botanical medicine. The AHPA is even studying non-traditional treatments for a variety of ailments.
“One area that we’re expanding into is medicinal marijuana and cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive component of the plant,” Haley said. “There’s a growing interest in both the medical benefits and new research on the plant.”
As the US continues to decriminalize marijuana and societal shifts change the perception of the drug, CBD has become a possible alternative to costly medical treatments. AHPA has a medical cannabis committee that helps companies find new ways to deliver the benefits of marijuana, while also reducing its negative impacts.
Working Toward a Healthier Future for Consumers and the Botanical Industry
Herbal goods have become attractive to consumers looking to improve their health and quality of life, which has led to rising sales. The AHPA’s mission is to ensure the quality of all products, including botanical medicines or substances that boost the immune system and reduce health risks.
And as consumers become more interested in where their products originate, the AHPA helps institute safe and fair practices for growers, distributors, and sellers to produce high-quality herbal products.
The AHPA, and its member companies and organizations, have been successful for decades and continue to grow because they are always raising the bar — in terms of quality — for the industry.
By inspiring member entities, such as the ABFFC, to take steps toward creating a new standard, the AHPA helps increase the level at which companies farm, manufacture, and distribute their goods.