Amazon.com quietly launched a "BPA-Free Baby" shop on its site last month, with a promo box appearing in rotation on the landing page of its Baby section. Z Recommends has cross-checked listings from Amazon.com's new shop against the Z Report on BPA, and confirmed with representatives at the relevant companies that four of the fourteen models of plastic bottles and sippy cups sold as "BPA-free" by Amazon.com in their new shop contain bisphenol-A.
We find this deeply troubling for a couple of reasons, and think Amazon.com should as well. It also raises some interesting questions about the role of retailers in public health issues and industry reform. Below, a detailed look at what we found and what it means for consumers.
Breaches of Confidence
Visitors to the shop are greeted with:
Bisphenol A (BPA) has been a topic of particular interest in the news and to our customers. Here at Amazon.com we strive to offer the widest selection of products at the best possible value to our customers. We also hope to help our customers make purchase choices that are right for them and their loved ones. For those concerned with BPA, we have collected our baby feeding products that are BPA-free.BPA-containing items currently misidentified as BPA-free in Amazon.com's BPA-Free Baby shop include:
- Gerber Comfort Hold bottles
- Nuby 12-oz. Mega Sipper
- Nuby 7-oz. Two-Handled Cup
- Nuby No-Spill 3-Stage Bottle
What Does BPA-Free Mean?
Some of these discrepancies might be accounted for if Amazon.com was promoting products as free of bisphenol-A only in certain parts of the product. Nuby's 12-oz. Mega Sipper, for example, contains BPA in the flip-top for its straw, and its 7-oz Two-Handled Sippy contains the toxic substance in its handles. Both have "BPA-free" cup bodies, but that does not make the product "BPA-free" any more than nonfat frozen yogurt and covered with chocolate fudge is "fat-free." There is room for disagreement about what parts might acceptably contain BPA, but unless you want to sow mass confusion, there is no room for alternative definitions of what it means for a product to be free of something. Other retailers have been more careful with this issue, labeling the presence of bisphenol-A in these "hybrid" Nuby products even while promoting them as safer than fully-polycarbonate bottles so that parents can truly, as Amazon puts it, "make purchase choices that are right for them and their loved ones."
By promoting these products as "BPA-free," Amazon.com is making claims here that even Luv 'n Care, Nuby's parent company, knows better than to attempt. Call the company's customer service representatives and ask them if the 12-oz. Mega Sipper is BPA-free, and they'll tell you it isn't. They'll tell you where the BPA is, and do their best to convince you that it's safe. But they don't dare call it BPA-free. So how does Amazon?
The answer, it appears, is not an attempt to redefine what BPA-free means, but simply a rush to market products in an attractive way without conducting the necessary steps to ensure that marketing copy was accurate. Although manufacturers typically supply product copy for listings on sites like Amazon.com, none of these products actually claim to be BPA-free in their product listings; only in Amazon's BPA-Free Baby shop is this claim made, which leads us to suspect that the designations were made without manufacturer approval or even consultation.
Amazon.com has frequently had problems dealing with public safety or public health issues, and although in the past year we have seen dramatic improvements to the rapidity with which the site removes listings for recalled children's items, the haphazard populating and launch of this shop speaks volumes about the company's management of issues relating to consumer safety.
Not Mean, Just Sloppy
Two cases clearly demonstrate to us that Amazon is acting negligently but not maliciously.
First, Gerber ComfortHold bottles are included in their BPA-free listings. These bottles are named "Premium Bottles" in their Amazon listing, but the image clearly shows that they are the ComfortHold bottles, and a quick call to Gerber customer service verifies that these terms are used interchangeably. The ComfortHold bottle is a poster child for polycarbonate plastic -as shiny as lip gloss - and the full bottle is made of polycarbonate, not a small exterior component. This is the kind of product every parent looking to reduce their infant's BPA exposure wants to keep far away from their child, and we can't fathom that Amazon.com would attempt to sell this product to these parents except through the gross mismanagement of easily-accessed information.
As further evidence of our claim of negligent rather than malicious false advertising, Amazon's BPA-Free Baby shop, which we have been examining closely for more than a week now, also offered Dr. Brown's 8-oz. "Standard" bottles for more than a week before removing it without notification or any alert on the page to consumers that an erroneous listing had been removed. These bottles, like the Gerber ComfortHold, are also made from BPA-containing polycarbonate plastic. Amazon.com seems to have been confused by the bottle maker's release of glass bottles and imminent plans to release a BPA-free polypropylene bottle. A call to Dr. Brown's customer service confirmed that Dr. Brown's polypropylene bottles have been delayed; their glass bottles are 7 ounces, not eight; and the listing promoted in the shop as "BPA-Free" clearly linked to the ASIN (Amazon's unique identification number), product description, and more than 300 reviews for its long-available polycarbonate bottles.
The Risks For Retailers
The errors in Amazon's BPA-Free Shop are a costly and potentially damaging misstep for a company stepping so gingerly into the BPA-free market at such a late date. But Amazon shouldn't just be worried about provide good customer service. They should worry about getting sued.
Consider the potential liability Amazon.com exposes itself and others to by listing products containing BPA as "BPA-free."
- If Nalgene can be sued for selling products containing BPA, could Amazon.com face a class-action lawsuit from consumers who were misled into buying and using products containing BPA?
- If Amazon.com can declare products containing BPA as "BPA-free," what about manufacturers? Other online retailers?
- Is Amazon responsible for accepting returns based on the mislabeling of products purchased during the weeks or months they were marketed in this way? Would accepting returns now implicate them in a later lawsuit as acknowledging their errors?
So why are we publicly broadcasting the errors rather than just notifying Amazon.com and moving on?
Why We're Speaking Out
At ZRecs we have worked to arm consumers with detailed information about BPA-free and BPA-containing products for a year now. The development and maintenance of our Z Report on BPA involves hundreds of hours of research, intensive ongoing contact with company representatives, direct challenges to misstatements and obfuscations, and careful tracking of product revisions and distribution timelines to ensure that consumers making purchases through our site (which are ultimately made, ironically, through Amazon.com) are truly BPA-free. We have an Amazon aStore full of such products we have verified as BPA-free. We also launched a text-messaging service to help consumers make purchases at brick-and-mortar stores using our research.
We have learned to make multiple calls to confirm product information with company officials at the highest possible levels, and whenever we have erred - usually based on inaccurate information provided by company representatives - we have not only corrected ourselves, as we are certain Amazon.com will do here eventually, but have alerted readers of updated information through directory comments or, in some cases, new posts.
We have done all of this within a broader climate of consumer fear, company spin, industry-fomented conspiracy theories, and urban legends and fragmentary infomation spread through online forums, message-boards, blogs, and chain emails. By establishing our site as a credible, fact-checked sources of accurate information about the BPA status of children's feeding products, we have, in large part, achieved our original goal of helping to spread information consumers could act on with confidence.
The past several weeks have seen tremendous changes in the public perception of this issue. The Senate has introduced a bill to ban BPA in all children's products, it has been declared a toxic substance in Canada, and numerous U.S. government organizations have now weighed in against exposing infants and young children to BPA. This means millions of consumers are now examining products for their BPA content for the first time, and making purchases accordingly.
Missteps by companies with the reach and power of Amazon.com can result in tremendous potential setbacks to the efforts ZRecs and other bloggers have made to educate consumers about how to avoid this potentially harmful chemical. We believe ZRecs has earned enough credibility to successfully argue to many consumers that we should be trusted over Amazon.com when it comes to bisphenol-A in children's products, and we don't rely on their listings or on any other site except credible information from company websites when creating Z Report directory listings. But we don't think there are many other bloggers who can convince their readers that one of the world's largest online retailers is wrong, and we think that most people who don't see our report, but do see Amazon's shop, will be misled.
For this reason, prior to publishing this critique, we approached them directly through the Amazon.com employee who manages content for the Baby section of this site. We offered to help the company validate and expand their listings, which encompass a mere fraction of the BPA-free children's feeding products carried by Amazon.com and thus represent a significant missed opportunity for the company. We did this first casually, and then in a formal proposal we requested she pass on to those with the requisite authority to consider it.
Our formal offer of assistance, as well as follow-up emails attempting to confirm through the email address she provided us that she had passed it on to the relevant Amazon decision-makers, went unanswered.
Despite the corrections we have no doubt will be made to the site, some damage will already have been done, both among consumers who might make purchases through Amazon and those who might simply "learn" these errors and make purchases elsewhere. Even when these errors are removed from the site - if not the BPA-Free Baby shop entirely - there is no guarantee that Amazon.com will not introduce additional BPA-containing products into a revised form of this shop, or some other form of BPA-free designation, in the weeks and months to come.
Without an opportunity to work with Amazon to improve the accuracy of its listings, we are left with one option as consumer advocates: to warn them that the company's fact-checking, at least when it comes to BPA-free products, is nowhere near what it should be.
We encourage readers considering purchases on Amazon.com, particularly of products they see in Amazon's BPA-Free Baby shop, to check the Z Report on BPA for more accurate information prior to making a purchase. We also urge you to share this information with any friends or loved ones who might make purchases through Amazon.com's BPA-Free Shop, and to let Amazon.com know how you feel about their services "for those concerned with BPA."