This is especially the case in four ASEAN countries, namely Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, where health supplements have been officially recognised as essential products. The related workforce and supply chain were also identified as critical essential infrastructure.
In contrast, there was limited success in countries such as Singapore, the ASEAN Alliance of Health Supplement Associations (AAHSA) told NutraIngredients-Asia.
The AAHSA has seven members, with the other three being Singapore, Thailand, and Brunei.
AAHSA was responding to queries on the challenges that member associations have faced during COVID-19 lockdown and the measures taken.
Backed by the International Alliance of Dietary / Food Supplement Associations (IADSA), AASHA said it had worked with local associations in their efforts in obtaining the “essential” status when governments imposed COVID-19 lockdown, but yielded different results in different countries.
“This was successful in Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, resulting in health supplement supply chains being restored reasonably quickly and even sales at retail outlets resumed,” Daniel Quek, chairman of AAHSA said.
With Malaysia as an example, the health supplement industry was recognised as “essential” two weeks into the lockdown.
Quek said that this meant that authorities in these countries have fully recognised the importance of health supplements as a category in helping to optimise or maintain public health.
Asked the reasons for the success, he said this was linked to trust between industry associations and government agencies, as well as a good understanding of the benefits that supplements could provide during the pandemic.
Another reason is the size of the workforce which is dependent on the industry in these four countries.
“Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, with Singapore to a lesser extent, were able to have fruitful discussions and worked collaboratively to allow health supplement supply chains and health supplement workers to continue operating.
“As such, the health supplement ingredients could flow to the manufacturing side and onwards to distribution, sales and finally to the consumer,” he said.
In the case of Singapore, he said that the effort to make the health supplement industry ‘essential’ was less successful, due to limited recognition of the benefits of supplements.
“In Singapore, the effort was less successful despite the pro-business stance of the government, as there was limited recognition of health supplements as ‘essential’ and retail sales being resumed only at the last re-opening phase,” he added.
In some countries, regulators have exercised flexibility when it comes to stocking immunity support supplements that frequently ran out-of-stock, which is also testament to the importance of health supplements.
The highly popular ones were vitamin C and multivitamins, said Quek.
To replenish the products, some countries have expanded their product sourcing and imported products from the nearest available source.
The problem is that these products, already meant for sale elsewhere, were pasted with labels that did not comply with local regulations and technically would not have been legal for sale.
In this case, the regulators exercised flexibility by allowing these products to be re-labelled or even over-stickered as a temporary solution to alleviate the out-of-stock situation.
Retail, supply chain challenges
Another challenge faced was that retail stores selling supplements were abruptly forced to shut down, causing supplement brands heavily dependent on this channel for sales to suffer the most.
Going further upstream, supply shortages, especially for health supplement ingredients, were seen due to restrictions in cross-border transportations, manpower shortages, and the lack of international and inter-governmental co-ordination, Quek said.
There is a positive outlook for the health supplement industry in South East Asia despite the economic downturn, according to Quek.
He said that even without COVID-19, there was already a role for health supplements in keeping the public healthy and reducing the economic burden of treating osteoporosis, health diseases and other conditions related to a greying population.