Earlier this year, Amazon launched its Amazon Elements line with four products: Vitamin D2, Vitamin K2, Turmeric Root Extract and Calcium Complex. The unique facet of the Amazon Elements product line is the implementation of transparency using a QR code, which I wrote about back in March. The consumer can scan the QR code on the front of their bottle’s label. Information ranging from date of manufacture to assay of each ingredient, including country of origin, is displayed on the mobile device. Analysis of microbes, pesticides, and heavy metals is presented through a display of test identification, and country of origin of each ingredient is identified.
Now, the Amazon Elements transparency initiative is becoming increasingly noteworthy because it has become the first brand to openly tout a Chinese sourced ingredient. When Amazon launched the Amazon Elements line in March 2017, it was a big deal in some ways and a limited event in others. The fact that the launch only included four items was considered by many to show a lack of commitment to the concept of the Amazon private label dietary supplement offering. The number of products in the Amazon Elements line has grown to seven in the six months since the launch. While this pace is hardly representative of the speed at which Amazon typically operates, Amazon’s transparency initiative is demonstrating both success and acceptance, partly based upon the consumer ratings its received:
“I love the fact that Amazon Element products are tested for quality, and I can view the Certificate of Analysis for my bottle by scanning the code on the label.”
“I appreciate that Amazon Elements offers transparency about their process of making this, where ingredients come from, etc.”
“I feel confident taking this and I love that they provide so much information about all aspects of their supplements.”
“I love how you can scan the qr code with the Amazon app and it gives you every detail about how/where it was made. Even 3rd party lab tests!”
“This product is made in a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility in the USA from US, imported ingredient. The user can find the certificate of analysis for his/her supplements by scanning the code on the bottle.”
The China conundrum
The newest Amazon Element offering, Biotin 5,000mcg, is markedly different from the previous six products in that it is the first to have the primary active ingredient sourced from China. All manufacturers to date have been reluctant to call out Chinese sourced ingredients and often go out of their way to avoid admitting the reality that most ingredients are Chinese sourced. I have had the good fortune to have visited many outstanding Chinese manufacturing facilities so I know geography is not a determinant of quality. However, there has been a bias against Chinese manufactured food products not only in the United States but globally, including in China itself.
The Amazon Element Biotin label offers the following:
PRODUCT OF CHINA
MADE IN THE U.S.A. FROM U.S. AND IMPORTED INGREDIENTS
Another item called out on this product webpage is the fact the ingredient undergoes a “Biotin Synthesis.” Amazon includes a simple infographic demonstrating the six step process the product undergoes and calls out that the Amazon Elements biotin supplement contains purified biotin made through a synthesis reaction.
Finally, Amazon cites the Country of Origin again:
We know it’s important to offer a transparent view into the product you’re consuming. The active ingredient is biotin sourced from Xinchang County, Zhejiang, China. Other ingredients in the supplement are designed to keep the blend consistent, prevent caking, and support the encapsulation process.
Early reviews of the product found on the Amazon product page website are consistently calling out the concern about the Chinese sourcing:
“Alas, this supplement is made in China, which is a concern to me, thus the 3 stars rather than 5.”
“The capsules are manufactured in the US. but my one concern was that the biotin is sourced from China (something I didn’t notice before ordering) but I guess I need to be satisfied that it was tested for pesticides, herbicides, rodenticides, and heavy metals.”
“It’s nice that you can check the purity et all with these, but a little misleading to say that they’re made in the US when the products come from another country (China).”
“I won’t buy outsourced food products from China for my dogs; I definitely don’t want to ingest any myself. I notice many Amazon Element supplements are products of different countries, and manufacturing costs probably have a lot to do it. It just makes me uneasy to swallow a supplement whose main active ingredient is made in China, but manufactured here.”
“I like Amazon elements products, but coming from China makes me a little unsure.”
The Bottom Line
It remains to be seen how the transparency being offered by Amazon announcing country of origin will affect the success of the product. The result of the impact on sales because of transparency is not the primary focus of a go forward strategy. The importance of the Amazon Element transparency action is the action itself. This level of transparency will become more an expectation and standard as more consumers demand complete product information. Future consideration will have to focus more on education of assurances resulting from inspections, audits and testing. Trying to conceal information because the explanation for assurance is too difficult is no longer sufficient. The good news is much of the industry already conducts sufficient testing of product to assure safety. Now Foods offers this recap of a 21 day audit trip in China. This representation of a company’s determination to gain knowledge of how a product is made is paramount to providing education to the consumer that where a product is made is not sufficient information to determine safety or quality
The trend of transparency is an evolution that is unlikely to step backward. It will be up to the marketplace to decide how it will respond to this new level and no longer pretend evolution of transparency is avoidable. Responsible and accurate sharing of information will likely be the winning combination as we work to deal with the questions emanating from this new level of transparency.
Scott Steinford, Managing Partner, Trust Transparency Consulting