A local woman with a penchant for safe and organic products stood up against a nationwide direct sales company based in Rhode Island to expose their extremely mislabeled product to consumers.
Jess Brandt, a self-described "mama with a computer," is a familiar face around Gays Mills. She grew up, spending her life in the rural community. Online she is a powerhouse blogger with the well-respected and followed page ecofriendlymamausa.com.
Brandt describes herself as "A label-reading mama on a mission to find the safest products on the market." She has spent countless hours, reading labels, trying products, and researching everything in hopes of making the lives of other families a bit simpler, while on their journey to a safer, more eco friendly lifestyle.
Throughout this quest, Brandt encountered an up-and-coming company called Ava Anderson Non Toxic. The company was founded by a young college student from Rhode Island, Ava Anderson, the namesake of the company.
Anderson has said in numerous interviews that as a teenager she sought to combat what she saw as "an overuse of harmful chemicals in beauty and other household products." The direct sales company (similar to the consultant-and catalog-home-party style used by companies like Avon or Home Interiors) was launched when Anderson was just 15 years old. Anderson had lots of help starting the company from her family, who have generations of direct sales experience. The company operated successfully until Monday, when it shut down services under the current label as a direct sales business citing online attacks, while mentioning rebranding plans in the future.
In its infancy in 2009, the company only offered six skincare products, but the offering quickly grew to over 80 specific products. The 2015 projectected revenue for the company was $25 to $40 million, which would double the revenue of the previous year.
In an April 2015 interview Anderson did with Providence Business News, she explained the essence of Ava Anderson Non Toxic.
"Once I learned to read labels, I realized there are still dozens of other harmful chemicals that I didn’t want to expose myself to," Anderson told the Rhode Island business publication.
The non-toxic, safe product aura seemed to help propel Anderson, a third generation direct sales businessperson, into popularity. In early 2015, it was reported that the company had 7,000 consultants or direct salespeople, who sold in all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico and at U.S. military bases abroad.
Three years ago, Ava Anderson Non Toxic sent Brandt a box of products to trial and review for her blog. Upon reading the ingredients, Brandt was thrilled to see that they all met her strict standards for the safest products that she recommends. One product in particular that she found very surprising in its quality was the dish soap.
"When I looked at the label, with its effectiveness, it just seemed too good to be true," said Brandt. She noted that often, the safest of dish soaps are not known to create large amounts of suds that many may prefer or maybe are accustomed to when washing. "I went directly to the consultant, who provided me with the product, and asked about the ingredients and how they were able to achieve the outcome of the product.
"I didn't really get an answer, so I ended up speaking to the owner of the company (Ava's mother Kim Anderson) who responded that the foaming agent was Organic Kelp Extract," Brandt recalled.
Still curious, the local label-reading mama consulted with some other soap makers that she knew through her blogging work. She was unable to find a supplier of Organic Kelp Extract. No one could confirm that the ingredients in the Ava Anderson Non-Toxic Dish Soap would really add up to something as effective as the product they were offering.
Brandt proceeded to move Ava Anderson Non Toxic off of her recommended safe products list to her "so-so" list which is compiled of what she refers to as "not the best, but not the worst" products, and moved on with her life.
The company and dish soap product never strayed far from her mind or her desktop, as many people on her social media pages brought it up time and time again as a discussion topic as many of the Ava Anderson Non Toxic ingredients continued to appear safe.
"I would wake up in the middle of the night and end up staying awake thinking 'this just doesn’t add up!'" Brandt remembered. Although the thought had passed through her mind to have the product tested, Brandt assumed the cost would be too expensive, leading her to continue her speculations for the next three years.
The company remained on her "so-so" list, even when in early 2015 the company did some reformulations on some of their products removing Geogard Ultra as a preservative, which is another name for sodium benzoate and gluconolactone, preservatives believed to be toxic.
Brandt noted her continued distrust for the company in a blog post, which included a conversation with representatives regarding Organic Certification. The company claimed that their line of essential oils were certified organic, but lacked any of the proper labeling reflecting their USDA certification. The company responded to Brandt with their explanation for not being certified organic.
"We do not have the USDA certification on our products, but all of our organic ingredients have always been certified,” Ava Anderson Non Toxic informed Brandt. “We chose not to have the seal on our products, as it is very expensive and really all it gets you is a lot of paperwork, it also doesn’t require 100 percent of the ingredients to be safe, so we have multiple cases of products with the seal that we would not use or recommend and therefore we always go back to ‘at Ava Anderson its all about the ingredients’."
The explanation did not sit well with Brandt for many reasons.
"It didn’t add up to me why a multimillion dollar company would find getting USDA Certified to be 'too expensive,' when so many small companies are able to afford it because it is an important label to prove the quality of their product," Brandt said.
Issues continued to arise, as the company told Brandt that they were certified by Oregon Tilth, which proved untrue.
Other individuals submitted claims to the USDA citing the false claims of Ava Anderson Non Toxic’s organic certification. They were told by the USDA that the federal department of agriculture had no information connecting the company to any kind of organic certification on record.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) concluded its investigation of the complaint you filed against Ava Anderson Non-Toxic (AA),” a letter in response to complaints from the USDA stated. “Your complaint alleged that AA marketed its Essential Oil product as organic, in violation of the USDA organic regulations. Our investigation confirmed your allegation. In response, the AA modified its Essential Oils labels and other market information to comply with the law."
Labeling issues like that continued to pile up as time went on. One of the most popular products the company sold, a diaper cream, did not list zinc oxide, when in fact it did have it as an ingredient. As Brandt noted, this oversight could have caused huge issues for some families.
"Why does this matter: What if your child was deathly allergic to zinc oxide? We as the consumer have a right to know every single ingredient in our products," Brandt said.
Later, Brandt received an unrelated email from someone who was working on a lawsuit against another company. In the email, she found the name, Dr. Kevin Dunn. Dunn is a soap scientist and professor at Hampden-Sydney College, with recognized credentials attached to his name.
This was the break that Brandt had been waiting to occur. Upon contacting him, she found out that for a small fee of $200, he would be able to give her a complete report on the Ava Anderson Non-Toxic Dish Soap. Jess Brandt started down the path with this company, and hopefully this would put her mind to rest.
"I sent him the product, and he sent me back a six page report full of graphs and charts, breaking down the contents of the dish soap," explained Brandt. "A lot of it was way over my head, but in conclusion, it was found that it was definitely not what it was labeled to be."
The original ingredients, which were listed for the Ava Anderson Non Toxic Dish Soap, were organic coconut oil, organic palm oil, organic jojoba oil, filtered water, organic kelp extract, organic thyme, organic orange essential oil, organic lemon essential oil, organic mandarin essential oil, and organic rosemary essential oil. A combination, according to Dr. Dunn, that would not have added up to effective dish soap.
"My initial impression of this list was that with the exception of filtered water and possibly kelp extract all of these materials are oils, and consequently insoluble in water. If the ingredients list were accurate, the product should separate on standing into an oil phase and an aqueous phase. The product I received did not do so. I concluded that the product is not a mixture of oil and water, as claimed," noted Dunn. He continued in his report to say, "I conclude that Ava Dish Soap contains (in order or predominance) water, an anionic surfactant similar to Bioterg (a sodium alkyl sulfonate), a water-soluble mineral such as sodium or potassium chloride, and scent. It does not contain vegetable oil (coconut, palm, or jojoba). It may well be that the anionic surfactant is manufactured from coconut oil, but if that is the case, the ingredients list should specify the surfactant rather than listing raw materials. In conclusion: I did not evaluate Ava Dish Soap for cleansing ability, mildness, or other aspects important to consumers. The request that was made of me was to simply determine whether the ingredients list was accurate. While the product may have been manufactured from vegetable oil, it does not contain vegetable oil. It also does not contain soap. Comparing the spectrum to an admittedly small selection of detergents, the closest match was to sodium alkyl sulfonate."
With the report proving that the product was completely mislabeled, Brandt took to her blog and subsequently social media last Friday, Jan. 22, to spread the news. She noted among the reasons she felt so deeply disturbed by the results was the fact a situation like this creates many problems for not only consumers but also other producers.
"This creates a uneven playing field for those using truly natural and organic ingredients," Brandt stated on her blog post.
Brandt also noted that safety is an issue when it comes to what is in a product matching the label.
"It's really sad when people are trying to provide the safest products for their families and end up getting dooped,” Brandt said. “It is extremely dangerous to have off-label ingredients. Those who choose organic products don’t do so on a whim. We're major label readers, many of us for serious reasons: our kids have life-threatening allergies, our husband is in remission from melanoma, we've just beat breast cancer, and the list goes on. It's super frightening and absolutely appalling that a company can get away with slapping their label on a product, which is completely, absolutely, a fabrication and misrepresentation of what’s inside."
On Monday morning, January 25, Jess Brandt opened her email inbox and could hardly believe her eyes. The Ava Anderson Non-Toxic Group had decided to close Ava Anderson LLC.
"I couldn't believe it, my son asked me, 'Why do you keep saying 'oh my gosh, mama?' and I told him that a company had lied to many people, he turned and looked at his sister and said very seriously 'Don't lie to mama!'"
On the cover page of their website, the Anderson family addresses their consultants saying "We are a family who has supported our daughter, in a sincere and unselfish mission to educate everyone about this important issue and know that we have made a difference, with the help and hard work of all of you. We were naive about the challenges we would face. For years, we have been questioned, harassed, and impugned at times on a daily basis. Sadly, in addition to standing tall against these daily blows, we have been deceived by several vendors that we trusted and who professed to have the same mission as us. We never had any knowledge that any emulsifier ingredients were left off a label, or that a synthetic scent would have been added to our avaMEN and avaSCENT product."
The statement, available on their website www.avaandersonnontoxic.com continues stating that they were completely unaware of what the third party producers were putting in their product. A fact that Brandt also has pointed out is false in her opinion.
"Kim Anderson had said to me previously that she oversaw all of the products and signed off on everything that went into them," Brandt said, "and now they are saying they had no idea, and blaming the third party producer. Which is it?"
Things do not seem to be completely folded though for the company, as the conclusion of their announcement includes a special message from Chief Operating Officer Bob Manny sharing their intent to rebrand product and hope that individuals will give the company "a brief time to re-organize." This message has since been removed from their website and replaced with a note indicating the “Management Team at our Rhode Island-based home office will pick up the torch and carry forward….diligently working to continue to offer the great products you have experienced over the past six years under a new brand.”
Currently, no refunds are being offered from Ava Anderson Non Toxic on products other than for new consultant kits. However, the Direct Selling Association, in which AANT is a member, states in their code of ethics that “Our members must honor the repurchase policy, requiring the company to purchase any unused inventory from independent salespeople within 12 months at 90 percent or more of the original cost.”
On social media, tension seems to be rising as many conflicting feelings amongst followers of the issue are expressed. Some individuals feel similar to Brandt, full of shock and disappointment as they were reading labels closely only to find out they had been grossly misled, others however have taken a stance defending the company, and not feeling that they were doing wrong with their mislabeling and misleading claims.
Although some may feel this way, Brandt is currently waiting on further testing to find out if synthetic fragrances were used in the ever-popular diaper cream vs. the essential oils that were claimed on the labels.
“If it comes out that the synthetic fragrance oils were used, people will be very upset,” Brandt said. “I really hoped I was wrong before, I didn’t want it to come out this way, but that is what happened.”
Through all the negativity that has been brought to light through the investigation of one woman, Brandt believes it truly speaks to the strength and importance of carrying the USDA Organic seal.
"It makes such a strong case for the USDA organic label and being certified organic, its affordable, yes its a lot of paperwork, but there are programs to help people through the process,” Brandt noted. "Just because it’s on the shelf at Whole Foods, doesn't mean it’s safe, reading ingredient lists and looking for the USDA Organic seal is really important."
When asked where she plans to go from here, Brandt said with a smile, "home to play with my kids! But, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing; if I see something wrong with a product I’m not going to stay quiet. I'm going to let people know and continue my mission to find the safest products on the market and let people know what they are."