2022 Person of the Year: The Amazon.com Quality Activists

Each year, WholeFoods Magazine recognizes an individual or a group that has made a significant impact on our industry.

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“Every step we take to represent consumer and independent retailer interests is rewarding.”

—Karen Howard

Each year, WholeFoods Magazine recognizes an individual or a group that has made a significant impact on our industry. In 2022, we are shining a light on those who have taken a stand to help ensure quality and transparency on Amazon.com…and in the process to protect consumers from bad actors and support the independent natural products retailers who helped build this industry long before online sales started to capture market share.

The concern with natural products sold on Amazon.com  

“Lack of quality control and dishonest labeling are two related, very significant problems that exist especially on Amazon,” maintains Dan Richard, VP of Global Sales & Marketing, NOW. “It is too easy for new vitamin brands to—knowingly or unknowingly—find low-quality supplies and start selling on Amazon. They can and do make wildly misleading label claims that fool consumers, with no repercussions. This has been going on for years and is so widespread, especially among unknown brands that pay ‘sponsored’ advertising fees. Consumers are getting ripped off and quality brands have lost market share to cheaters over and over and over again.”

Offering more insight into the problems, Elan Sudberg, CEO, Alkemist Labs, notes, “It’s a jungle…There are so many choices, it’s almost limitless. That can be off-putting to consumers who are not yet sure what to buy and why. While limitless choice is a critical asset of Amazon, that and unparalleled convenience—and I mean unparalleled convenience—of the online experience lacks the careful curation found in traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Couple that with human subject matter experts who are sometimes available to help guide your purchasing decisions when you shop in person and you’ve got something I don’t know how Amazon will replicate. Oh wait, didn’t they buy Whole Foods Market?”

Scott Steinford, Founder, Trust Transparency, puts the impact in perspective. “The hundreds of omni-channel dietary supplement brands and retailers have a significant disadvantage to the thousands of brands offered only on the Amazon platform. The traditional natural health retailer provides vetting and confirmation of the products accuracy and authenticity. Amazon brands can begin with a single page application. Amazon has reinforced their position of allowing the consumer to decide if a product is valuable or not. This concept of quality assurance can be beneficial for boots and belt buckles, but ingestible products should require more confirmation than a simple application can provide.”

The ability to comply with federal regulation seems to plague Amazon, adds Karen Howard, CEO, Executive Director, Organic & Natural Health Association (O&N Health). Howard says this is an issue even though Amazon has its own branded products. “Of course, everyone expects enormous competition on the world’s largest online retail platform. However, counterfeits litter search results, even with the new C of A requirements. They also have a major issue when it comes to illegal claims. If you type in ‘supplements that treat’ (or cure), you’ll have lots of purchase options. Perhaps most interesting to watch is the company’s response to FDA itself. FDA hearings shine a light on CBD, and Amazon declares it will no longer allow CBD sales. That hiccup with NAC? Again, sales are banned.”

Considering how large and diverse as Amazon.com is, contends Sudberg, it’s understandable that there have been quality challenges to overcome. “In response, there have been tidal waves of change triggered by their strengthening the gates for which a brand must pass to sell on their platform. In some respects, they are leading the industry in improving the standards around quality and transparency. But there are always cheaters who will come up with ever more clever ways to get around rules, so constant vigilance is necessary.”

Given that some products being sold do not meet label claim or contain active ingredients—an issue that can erode consumer trust and in turn harm the entire industry—Amazon.com better be taking action. But as Len Monheit, CEO of Industry Transparency Center (ITC), laments, “There is inconsistency in Amazon’s approach to this. Are they trying to do this as a responsible retailer, or to keep themselves out of big legal trouble? We fear only the latter.”

How companies are making a difference

Industry efforts date back years. NOW has been a major factor in the fight for quality and transparency. Richard explains, “NOW had an ongoing program of testing products sold by ‘no name’ brands on Amazon over the course of several years and sharing that information widely. NOW first tested CoQ10 400mg on Amazon in 2017. This was in response to seeing 400-mg potency in dry gelatin capsules, which we knew was technically unlikely. Our experience had shown that pure CoQ10 is too sticky to run on encapsulating machines and needed to be made into softgels instead. So we were skeptical of this right away, and the relatively low costs on Amazon added a second red flag. Our first round of testing showed potencies as low as only 31% of label claim. Since then, we have tested eight more products and continued to find major quality issues.”

The reason NOW first started looking into products on Amazon.com? The brand was losing business on Amazon to brands the NOW team had never heard of. “NOW is a value brand, but these other prices were so low that it didn’t make sense relative to the cost of CoQ10. NOW has decades of experience making quality affordable, so we know what it takes, and we were skeptical that these companies no one has ever heard of had similar capabilities. So, initially we had our own selfish reasons to test, and see if these unknown brands were legit. Once we started doing more testing, we found many more problems than we imagined. These included high levels of heavy metals, high micro-bacterial levels, and up to 10% of products labeled as in vegetarian capsules, but actually made in bovine gelatin capsules. So what started as a competitive analysis quickly became more about protecting consumers, and the legitimate industry’s reputation.”

And what did Amazon.com do about it? Well, nothing…at least at first, Richard reports. “NOW shared our various results each round directly with Amazon, but we didn’t get any feedback and got the feeling that nothing would be done about the problem. Eventually, NOW went public by sharing full disclosure results of brand names, lot numbers, and potencies tested both at NOW and independently by Eurofins labs. We shared this openly to the media, our customers, some quality competitors, and eventually to FDA. Results of NOW’s systematic testing of select high-value products on Amazon received widespread trade media coverage, and other organizations began investigations. At the end of 2020, Amazon announced strict new requirements for supplement sellers, and fine-tuned them with industry feedback. While Amazon has not stated that NOW’s exposé was the impetus, the timing suggests a correlation.”

CoQ10 concerns prompted action from Trust Transparency as well. “While running the trade organizations supporting CoQ10 and Astaxanthin, it became clear that too many Amazon brands were entering the marketplace with little or no active ingredients in them,” explains Steinford. “It is evident other ingredients are impacted by the Amazon platform selling requirements. When a consumer decides a dietary supplement product does not work for them, it often becomes an indictment on all supplements. It is more important for the safety of the dietary supplement industry and its consumers, to aggressively self-police to build and maintain trust.”

Trust Transparency has worked to ensure the authenticity and assay of many ingredients and reported these findings to the marketplace and the brands, says Steinford. “Through our testing and reporting, we have influenced some Amazon dietary supplement brands to discontinue products found to be inconsistent with label claims. Other Amazon  dietary supplement brands have changed or improved their supply chain to meet label claims. The bottom-line is the self-policing our industry has done to improve the overall Amazon dietary supplement offering is improving the marketplace.”

O&N Health is another early actor. “After Amazon banned the sale of CBD, all the industry’s reputable brands pulled their products off the platform, but Amazon search results proved hemp products were still being marketed as CBD products,” recalls Howard, of early efforts to effect change. “In October 2019, Organic & Natural Health Association engaged Alkemist Labs to test samples of three banned CBD products purchased from Amazon. Their best-selling ‘New Age Premium Hemp Oil’ contained 1% CBD. The product was advertised and tagged as CBD, which was not listed on the label, with these illegal claims: Naturally relieve aches and pains, including: multiple sclerosis pain, neuropathic pain, osteoarthritis aches, sore muscles, runner’s knee and joints, neck and back pain.”

O&N Health is committed to ensuring consumers have access to products that are safe and effective, which requires transparency and traceability, Howard stresses. “The other two hemp products we tested showed no CBD, leaving people seeking quality CBD, through the search engine, deceived. When the rules aren’t imposed consistently, quality suffers for consumers and retailers who do comply are placed at an economic disadvantage. Everyone has to play by the same set of non-negotiable rules: Rules that are articulated by FDA.”

In December of 2019, Howard recounts, the efforts began to pay off. “The Washington Post—also owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—followed our lead and published the test results of 13 hemp products from Amazon. Eleven contained CBD. Amazon was quick to respond that ‘they move quickly to hold bad actors accountable.’”

Actions like that are helping to move things in the right direction. “We applaud all efforts to pressure Amazon for transparency with accountability, Howard says. “This type of pressure is essential if we are to impact change.”

Monheit agrees. “We wanted to fully understand the prevalence of the problem and to take action—at over one third of products in some categories. That is unacceptable. It is frustrating when companies that do the right things are not rewarded. We are committed to changing that.”

That’s why ITC tests products in the categories that the group stewards. “We test on an ongoing basis and contact companies that fail testing to make them aware there is a quality issue,” shares Monheit. “Often, we are ignored; a few times, they deferred to their contract manufacturers. In several cases, product has been pulled by the brand. We have never received a response from Amazon as a retailer. We also have published on curcumin to make manufacturers aware of the challenges with specific botanicals. We know, as a result of our efforts, several have enhanced their QC and at least two have changed suppliers.”

Industry efforts will continue

“NOW absolutely will continue to test and report on products bought on Amazon,” shares Richard. “In 2022, NOW tested CoQ10 for the fourth time, as well as quercetin. The sad thing is, many of the CoQ10 failures in 2022 are the same brands that failed in 2017, 2018, and 2020.  In 2022, only one out of eight CoQ10 brands tested had more than 30% of label claim, and many brands have resorted to making illegal and confusing label potency claims. Currently, NOW is finishing a new round of testing for magnesium glycinate and will report full details including brand names, testing method, potencies, and identity.”

At O&N Health, Howard says, “We continue to educate our members on Amazon business practices and their ability to be successful on that platform. We are now in discussion regarding ways for the industry to unite and create solutions that everyone can live with.”

Steinford is also staying focused on the task, and expanding efforts: “Trust Transparency and the organizations we support will continue to self-police this industry and continue to report our findings to the brands and consumers. We are also expanding our commitment to include pet food and supplements in an effort to improve all aspects of proactive healthcare.”

ITC, Monheit says, has developed a contract manufacturing database and award program as CMs are often the keys to producing better products. “Some are exemplary. As we have found with failures that brands have tried to deflect to manufacturers, often the contract manufacturers are clearly at fault.”

Alkemist Labs, too, is taking action by helping to foster overall quality throughout the industry. “We plan to continue to make it easier and easier for our clients to transform quality, which has historically been considered an expensive liability on the P&L, into a return on investment where the expense can be capitalized and used as a marketing campaign. We also plan to continue to improve the security of our online C of As by working with the leading blockchain technologists and paving a path for all lab reports to be verifiable.”

Wish List: Asking Amazon to step up

What more would these changemakers like to see Amazon do to help ensure quality and protect consumers? “We would love for Amazon to be transparent with how they are managing their current quality approval process,” shares Richard. “Currently, Amazon’s communication leaves a lot to be desired. This year I found another brand that was approved on Amazon that had posted a bogus ‘assay’ on its own site that only tested for ‘weight.’  Nothing more. No potency or identity test. Just weight of the claimed ingredient on the label. So Amazon approved this brand with a totally unethical ‘assay’ that was only meant to deceive someone at Amazon who wouldn’t understand assays. A true whistleblower process would do wonders to clean up low-quality products on Amazon.”

Also pointing to better communication: “Amazon product quality should be held to the same responsibility as a chef or a bartender,” says Steinford. “The safety and well-being of customers should be a proactive discussion and not a reactive conversation designed to provide after-the-fact analysis.”

What Howard would like to see: “The search engine must be refined to prevent what is essentially an illegal claim. Additional efforts must be taken to rid the system of counterfeits. Amazon also needs to engage and collaborate with the industry as stakeholders.”

Noting that Amazon has taken some actions over the last year, Monheit adds that more is needed. “And it needs to be in consultation and collaboration with industry. We are not making widgets here; there is nuance to this industry that Amazon fails to understand.”

And while we as an industry are working to hold Amazon.com accountable: “In the future, the finest companies in the industry will have everything tested by accredited labs and go out of their way to share the results with consumers to gain their confidence,” says Sudberg. “Amazon has the capacity to be the change agents and send tidal waves of change triggered by their strengthening the gates for which a brand must pass to sell on their platform. I want to see a ‘transparency or get off the platform’ standard, but know that will take time to
enforce.”

Upsides of taking action

What has been the most rewarding part of these actions? For NOW, Richard says, “NOW has won multiple industry awards for our efforts and earned praise from competitors who appreciate what NOW is doing. Having industry support means a lot. We are taking a financial risk of being sued if the information we present is not true, but the results are validated by a quality outside lab, and of course we are very confident in the abilities of our in-house labs.”

Supporting consumers and natural products retailers is another huge payoff. “Every step we take to represent consumer and independent retailer interests is rewarding,” Howard says. “Being able to get past the ‘wake up call’ needed for real change to happen is something I look forward to.”

Pointing to the positive ripple effect, Sudberg says, “The most rewarding part of these efforts has been to see the industry start to talk about consumer trust and to see the word transparency maintain its ground as not just another buzzword. If I get asked this question a year from now, I will answer the same and expect to have case studies of increased sales that are correlated to increased transparency.”

Steinford, too, sees the positives of collaboration, and hopes to see this increase. “The Amazon dietary supplement market we first began reporting in 2017 is very different from what it is today,” says Steinford. “Transparency of testing and manufacturing is more evident to the consumer. Contract manufacturers are being held more accountable by Amazon and others. The improvements being noticed have come about through an industry-wide initiative. Continued diligence and cooperation will increasingly improve the trust and reliability of natural health products.”

Still a long way to go

“The changes to the quality assurance the Amazon platform provides have been slow and slight,” according to Steinford. “We as an industry need to continue to pressure all aspects of known improvements to be applied.

Working together really would make the biggest difference. “The lack of a cohesive industry response to Amazon concerns has remained elusive to this point,” Howard says. “However, it is a complex issue that requires all of us to be equally vested in a business case that can serve everyone, but most importantly benefits the consumer. I am hopeful that the balanced, and scientifically determined actions we have taken will result in true collaboration in the near future.”

‘It is frustrating that honesty is not winning the day,” laments Richard. “Transparency on NOW’s part is not winning the day. Quality is not winning the day. People are buying products such as CoQ10 400 mg as serious heart support and could have a major health problem, and they are being cheated of the health benefits they want and need. That is the biggest disappointment.  Safety should be first for all brands, but cheaters continue to win the buy box for too many supplements on Amazon.”

That said, for companies that do want to take action, Richard has a caution: “I don’t think public companies can do this because of business risks. It would be good if trade groups that are non-profit could take this on and be truly independent. We’d be more than happy to step back if some other party would do this honestly and without some marketing program attached.”

For those groups that are putting in the work, throw your support their way, Steinford urges. “Support the trade associations connected to both ingredients and the marketplace. Third-party organizations can bring forth information in a way that has less bias or conflict than individual brands or retailers. Also, don’t be afraid to ‘see something, say something’ when a suspicion is noticed.”

In addition, Monheit suggests, “Start in your own house and make sure that’s clean, and then engage with industry associations and third-party testing labs to ensure you’re following best practices, including ABC’s Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP). Incidentally, only about a half a dozen CM’s visibly support BAPP at present. Pressure your CMs to differentiate and tout what they do. They are horrible marketers and storytellers. As with many areas in this industry, relationships are everything—make sure to enhance your relationship with your CM.”

The same goes for labs. It has been a challenge, Sudberg says, to create critical mass for an idea like Alkemist Assured (learn more at “Spotlight on Alkemist Assured from Alkemist Labs” on www.WholeFoodsMagazine.com). “Lab reports have always been an internal document to be filed in the desk drawer of a mid-level quality control professional and just brought out for FDA inspections. Consumers and the mainstream media haven’t known they even exist as they parrot misinformation that we are an unregulated industry. The idea of sharing it all if you’ve got it has been a tough sell since many companies don’t ‘got it.’ This is why our strategy has been to start with the clients we already work with frequently who already have all the quality to brag about and are ready to break the ice for the rest of the industry. You should be proud of your lab tests and use them as marketing for your quality. If you are unable to do that, it’s time to change labs.” The bottom line, from Howard: “Find a home where your voice is heard and intention results in action. You don’t have to do this alone.” WF

 Consumers Wantand Will Pay forTransparency

A recent survey among supplement consumers conducted by Trust Transparency Center’s ITC Insights revealed that, for 67% of respondents, transparency influences purchase decisions, Steinford reports. “TTC looked very specifically at nine transparency signals in its ITC Insights 2020 Supplement Consumer Report. These areas, focusing on ‘brand’ signals of transparency, involved label information, quality seals, contact information, supplier information, 3rd-party testing information, country of origin, and the use of and information contained in QR codes.”

The top 5 transparency signals TTC discovered:

38% The brand has a quality seal on the label

30% Ingredient supplier information was provided on label/website

27% Label claims were believable, with references

26% The brand’s contact information on the label

24% 3rd-party lab testing data or lab contact information on its website

Making the Most of Brick-and-Mortar
Advantage Over Amazon

“Like Zoom meetings versus in person with your favorite colleagues, Amazon certainly is the market leader on convenience with no worthy challengers,” admits Alkemist’s Sudberg. “But the in-person experience will never be matched. With natural products retailers, there will be educated team members ready to help you make your purchasing decisions. Providing guidance from an educated staff has always been an advantage for brick and mortar retailers, and now more than ever.”

To help with that: “Stores can publish NOW’s results to let consumers know ‘buyer beware,’” says Richard. “They can share some of the many articles published about our testing programs in their newsletters or on social media. The low prices online are sometimes too good to be true. Local stores have many advantages that online stores can’t offer including service, in-person experience, sampling, and more. It’s not easy these days for any business, but many natural retailers still succeed by finding a worthwhile niche, providing quality health products and at a reasonable price.”

The key to the continuing success of the natural health industry, Steinford says, “exists in the same frame that brought the success we have achieved thus far. Science and education are the cornerstones for consumer confidence. Natural retailers should continue to demonstrate the care and concern that goes into your organization’s vetting and curation process. Reinforce to your customers the importance of making sure the product they ingest is safe and reliable, not cheap or convenient.”

Monheit also stresses the importance of the gatekeeping process. “Natural products retailers should share their vetting criteria with their customers—use storytelling to showcase the efforts they use to carry quality products.”

It is hard, and can be discouraging, but Howard encourages, “Stay the course! There will always be external forces that jeopardize the integrity of our industry, be it gas stations, pop-up CBD stores, or the ‘gorilla in the room’ named Amazon. Yet, through it all, the independent retailer stands as ‘chief educator’ for the community. We will continue our collaboration with SENPA and INFRA to ensure everyone is aware of the risks, and the opportunities to affect change, with their customers, and legislators.