Have you gotten into the habit of buying your nutritional supplements through Amazon, along with your other day-to-day necessities? If so, you may want to reconsider.
The e-commerce giant — which controls an estimated 40% of all U.S. e-commerce1 and handles more consumer searches than Google2 — has been found to sell counterfeit supplements on more than one occasion. In July 2019, Wired reported3 that Amazon had pulled fake Align probiotics by third-party sellers off its site and issued full refunds to customers.
Now, the Organic & Natural Health Association warns that Amazon may be defrauding customers twice by preventing genuine high-quality cannabidiol (CBD) products from being sold on its site, while simultaneously promoting and selling products that claim to contain CBD but don’t.
How Amazon Misleads Consumers on CBD
As reported by the Organic & Natural Health Association4 on October 15, 2019, Amazon’s policy prohibits the sale of CBD products, yet when you search for “CBD” in its search engine, thousands of products match that search term.
The reason for this is because Amazon allows vendors to tag their products with whatever search words they want — including terms that are prohibited per its own policy, apparently. You can even find results matching the search term “crack pipes,”5 even though illicit drugs and drug paraphernalia are strictly prohibited under Amazon’s rules.
Amazon also allows vendors to purchase advertising space for CBD products, again despite the fact that they don’t actually allow CBD products to be sold. To investigate this paradox, the Organic & Natural Health Association hired a third-party laboratory to test Amazon’s best-seller, New Age Premium Hemp Oil 1000 MG, for the presence of cannabinoids.
In what appears to be a clear violation of Amazon’s policy, the product was found to contain approximately 1% CBD6 (7.7 milligrams of CBD per 30 drops). It does not list CBD on the label, however. In a statement, Karen Howard, CEO and executive director of Organic & Natural Health, said:7
“It’s really important for consumers to know that because Amazon doesn’t allow the sale of products with CBD, there are no reputable companies selling CBD on their site …
Amazon states it has banned the sale of CBD supplements on its site, but allows advertising and tagging of CBD instead, inviting an influx of products to consumers that the FDA has been warning about …
Essentially, the public is being defrauded twice. First, Amazon’s best-seller, New Age Premium Hemp Oil contains CBD even though its label does not list CBD. Second, those searching for CBD products are being misled into buying products containing zero CBD.
We will continue our analysis of these products on Amazon’s site. Without any requirement for GMPs, consumers are running the risk of consuming products adulterated with processed oils, and we also know synthetic cannabinoid is in the market …
This deception Amazon is spoon-feeding consumers on CBD is highly irresponsible to millions of Americans in search of legitimate CBD supplements to help specific health ailments including stress, sleep and pain.”
Amazon Shirks Responsibility for Counterfeits
In instances where Amazon has warned consumers about counterfeit sales and refunded their money, the company has “taken far more action than it’s obligated to under the law,” Wired points out.8 The reason for this is because they’re considered a third-party marketplace and not an actual vendor; they’re simply an intermediary — or so they claim.9
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act10 shields companies like Amazon, eBay and Etsy from most liability for what’s being sold on their sites, even if products are found to be dangerous. Amazon manages to take a nearly 20% cut of most sales, while escaping all liabilities of defrauding customers and even while breaking their own policies.
EBay, for example, was found not guilty in a case where a vendor was selling recalled items,11 which is against eBay’s terms of service. As noted by QZ.com:12
“This undermines the very existence of U.S. tort laws. Potential liability is considered a kind of protection that incentivizes individuals and companies to act responsibly and produce safe products — or pay.”
Indeed, retail vendors are responsible for everything they sell, and can be held liable for dangerous or counterfeit products. However, when a dangerous product is bought via Amazon, it can be near-impossible to track down the Amazon vendor responsible for a defective or counterfeit product.
Some of them are overseas. Most simply vanish and cannot be located. But the main problem with Amazon’s categorization as a third-party marketplace is that it’s not a mere marketplace platform anymore. As noted by Wired:13
“Amazon is both a retailer and a third-party marketplace. It buys some products directly from manufacturers and sells them at a markup, and it allows independent merchants to offer their goods directly to consumers, the latter of which accounts for 58 percent of gross merchandise sales on the platform.
But the line between those two parts of its business are not always clear. Amazon exerts a significant amount of control over sellers, including dictating how their goods appear in search results. It also often warehouses and ships their products for them.
And unlike on eBay, Etsy, or other online marketplaces, a single Amazon product listing can feature goods from dozens of independent sellers, making it difficult for consumers to understand from whom they’re purchasing a product.
‘Amazon has obviously kept pushing the needle further and further toward taking responsibility for marketplace goods,’ says [Eric] Goldman [professor at Santa Clara University School of Law who has written extensively about intermediary liability].
The US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled14,15 earlier this month that these kinds of differences do, in fact, make Amazon liable for harmful products sold by third-party sellers in some circumstances.”
According to the Pennsylvania court of appeals ruling:16
“Amazon fails to account for the fact that under the Agreement, third-party vendors can communicate with the customers only through Amazon. This enables third-party vendors to conceal themselves from the customer, leaving customers injured by defective products with no direct recourse to the third-party vendor.
There are numerous cases in which neither Amazon nor the party injured by a defective product, sold by Amazon.com, were able to locate the product’s third-party vendor or manufacturer.”
Bad Actors Run Amok on Amazon
A related article17 in The Verge points out that “Recent investigations find that bad actors are running amok” on Amazon, and that the platform “may be too big to police.”
The investigation in question was performed by three Wall Street Journal18 reporters, who discovered “4,152 items for sale on Amazon that have been declared unsafe or banned by federal regulators, or have deceptive labels.”19
This included 52 listings for supplements previously identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Justice Department as containing illegally imported prescription drugs, 116 products falsely listed as “FDA Approved” when in fact they’re not, and 80 listings for infant sleeping wedges that Amazon claims to have banned after FDA suffocation warnings were issued.
Adding insult to injury, dozens of these potentially dangerous items were also tagged “Amazon’s Choice.” As noted by The Verge, this label is based on customer ratings, price and average shipping time, but most consumers tend to interpret it as a seal of approval.
Senators Call for Thorough Investigation
In response to The Journal’s investigation, three Democratic senators — Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Ed Markey, D-Mass. and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. — have written a letter to Amazon calling for a thorough investigation.20 In their letter,21 dated August 29, 2019, the three senators write:
“In addition to defective helmets, the WSJ investigation identified myriad problematic items for sale on the platform, including … unregistered pesticides; toxic paint strippers; pain relievers lacking appropriate FDA warning labels …
electronics deceptively labeled as third-party certified; and thousands of children’s products lacking federally mandated choking hazard labels, as well as toys containing lead at levels that violate federal limits.
Even when Amazon has banned products, its monitoring appears to be inadequate … they still remain widely and easily accessible on the platform … Unquestionably, Amazon is falling short of its commitment to keeping safe those consumers who use its massive platform.
We call on you to immediately remove … all the problematic products examined in the recent WSJ report; explain how you are going about this process; conduct a sweeping internal investigation of your enforcement and consumer safety policies; and institute changes that will continue to keep unsafe products off your platform.”
Hijacked Reviews — Another Tactic That Can Mislead You
The Verge also points out another significant problem on Amazon’s platform that results in customers being deceived: hijacked reviews.22 In some cases, the reviews you see under a product do not actually refer to the product currently for sale but for some previously listed product.
This migration of reviews appears to be the result of Amazon allowing sellers to edit listings. The take-home message in this case is that if a product has an excellent rating, you’d do well to read through the reviews to make sure they’re actually referring to the specific product you’re considering buying. Also look to make sure the positive reviews are tagged “Verified Purchase,” to avoid being misled by fake reviews.
Don’t Buy CBD From Amazon
The growing recognition of CBD’s medicinal benefits has led to an explosion of CBD products hitting the market. According to Project CBD, at least 50 conditions23 are believed to be improved by CBD, including pain, seizures, muscle spasms, nausea associated with chemotherapy, digestive disorders, degenerative neurological disorders, mood disorders and high blood pressure.
Cannabis has been legalized in several states, either for medical or recreational use or both, and hemp was included as a legal crop in the 2018 Farm Bill,24 leading to a rapidly growing market of hemp-derived CBD products. That CBD has noteworthy health benefits seems indisputable, but quality is paramount.
The fact that Amazon is prohibiting vendors from selling high-quality CBD products on its platform while advertising and shuttling consumers toward fake ones is a double disgrace. It seems Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is willing to sell just about anything to fund his dream of going into outer space.25
The take-home message here is this: Knowing that Amazon will not permit high-quality CBD products to be sold means you simply should not buy anything CBD-related from them. I also recommend caution when buying other nutritional supplements.
Also keep in mind that since CBD oil became a focus of popular holistic medicine almost overnight, effective quality control has not caught up yet and some products do not meet the claims made on the label.26 Until such a system is in place, it’s important you purchase your CBD products from a trusted source.
The need for more stringent quality control has already been demonstrated in studies27 showing 26.19% of 84 CBD products tested contained less CBD than advertised, and 42.85% of them contained more. Only 30.95% were accurately labeled.
The Case for Organic CBD
Heavy metal testing is particularly important for hemp-based CBD products, as the plant is known to extract heavy metals from the soil. In fact, it’s frequently used for bioremediation purposes,28 which is great if the hemp is used for rope, fuel and other nonmedical uses.
When made into medicine, however, this soil-cleansing feature could pose significant problems, as it must be grown in clean soil. As a general rule, I recommend seeking out certified organic CBD products to ensure the least amount of contamination with pesticides and other harmful agricultural contaminants.
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