Thursday, October 18, 2012

Deceptive Reviews on Yelp? How Could This Be?!?

More in the "shocked, shocked" category....

Earlier this year, I was inspired by a David Streitfeld story in the New York Times to write a post about all those "5-star" reviews littering the Internet (blog post here; Streitfeld's story, here). Mr. Streitfeld has done it again, with an article in today's Times about an attempt by Yelp to halt deceptive reviewing practices.

Yelp, an online hub for reviews of local businesses (dry cleaners, restaurants, jewelry stores, you name it), realized that it had a problem with false reviews, and set up its own sting operation.
For every five new notices that are submitted, one is determined by internal filters to be so dubious — either highly favorable or highly critical — that it is banned to a secondary page, which few users bother with, instead of appearing on the business’s profile page. Many of the reviews tagged as fake are written by people new to Yelp.

As a result, some businesses have sought out Yelp's so-called "elite" reviewers -- those who have a track record of posting reviews -- and offered cash payments for positive reviews.

How do you find an "elite" reviewer? On Craigslist.

So a Yelp employee went to Craigslist itself, and posed as an elite reviewer.

The initial sting uncovered eight businesses ready to pay for excellent reviews. Which, given that Yelp has a reported 30 million reviews, doesn't sound like a lot. (A Yelp vice president is quoted as saying, "It is safe to say that this is just a sample" of businesses seeking to influence their status.)

Payments reportedly ranged from $5 to $200; reviewers were sometimes given boilerplate copy to post and sometimes asked to write their own (positive) copy.

For the next three months, the Yelp profile pages for those eight businesses will features a "consumer alert" that says, "We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business."

This kind of public shaming may help, but I'm not convinced that it will make a real dent in the deceptions. A Cornell doctoral student in computer science who has been studying reviewer deception noted,
My intuition is that public shaming would increase the risk and therefore the cost of posting fake reviews, which could reduce the prevalence .... [But:] What’s to stop someone from going and soliciting fake positive reviews for a competitor’s restaurant, in order for them to be publicly shamed?

Let me reiterate my earlier closing:

Maybe we should rethink hive-mind reviews altogether. I have more confidence in the Times' restaurant reviews than in Yelp, and more confidence in what Consumer Reports says than in glowing reports on Amazon. Because even if I don't know those reviewers personally, I know what they stand for. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Big Pharma, Little Compounding Pharmacy. It's Not That Simple.

I know that I've been following the ongoing story of a fungal meningitis outbreak closely because it could so easily have been me.

For those of you who haven't: To date (according to today's New York Times story by Denise Grady), eight people have died, 97 others have sickened, and as many as 13,000 may have been exposed to fungal meningitis, which has been traced to a tainted steriod given as a spinal injection for relief from back and neck pain. The medication in all cases was made by Massachusetts-based New England Compounding Center, which "has shut down, surrendered its license and recalled all its products, not just the steroid."

It is not yet known whether all the vials of the steriod were infected with fungus, or only some of them.

I had surgery several years ago to relieve back pain, and I'm among the lucky who have not (knock wood) had recurring problems. But one of the physicians I met before opting for surgery suggested that quarterly steriod injections could probably do the trick just as well. I was concerned about possible long-term effects of steroid use, hence the surgery. But, as I said, it could have been me.

How is it that so many people were exposed to this contaminated drug? How could it take so long to find out what happened? Why is it still not clear where all the drug went, and who received it? (The "13,000" figure I quote above is a "first estimate" from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

It turns out that
The Food and Drug Administration has more regulatory authority over a drug factory in China than over a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts

according to a Boston University law professor, quoted in Saturday's Times, in an article by Denise Grady, Andrew Pollack, and Sabrina Tavernise. (Compounding pharmacies, the article explains, "mix up batches of drugs on their own, often for much lower prices than major manufacturers charge," and are increasingly used by some physicians and clinics to save money. Compounding pharmacies also sometimes fill "gaps left by shortages of drugs made by pharmaceutical companies.")

The problem is that 
Compounding falls in a legal no man’s land, between the federal government and the states. The F.D.A. regulates manufacturers, but compounders register as pharmacies, putting them under a patchwork of state rules. The F.D.A. did develop a clear set of rules for compounding, but subsequent litigation that culminated in a Supreme Court decision in 2002 struck them down, and Congress never re-established the agency’s clear authority...

Who knew? Well, somebody did, of course, but it was certainly news to me. And I might have been more trusting of a "compounding pharmacy" -- because that sounds more local and service-oriented -- than of a huge pharmaceutical company.

Not that all compounding pharmacies are that local (or, obviously, that service-oriented). New England Compounding was apparently licensed in all fifty states, and there are 23 states now tracking where this specific steroid went. A Washington lawyer, and a former chief counsel for the FDA, was quoted in Saturday's article as saying,
Some of these companies are just setting up big manufacturing shops in the guise of traditional compounding and making drugs that are, for the most part, commercially available. Instead of making fake Rolexes, they are making fake drugs.
If this is how industries self-regulate (and all too often, it is), is it any wonder that I keep asking for more regulation, not less?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Manage Your Supply Chain, Or It Might Manage You

Managing a supply chain that spans the globe has never been easy. It's so complicated, in fact, that many manufacturers simply throw up their hands -- as long as the product showed up when and where and how it was supposed to, what more could one do?

But in the Internet age, things are different.

Many of your customers want to know whether your jeans were made in a sweatshop factory where workers might burn to death because exits have been blocked, or whether that rug was knotted by children's hands, or whether the tanzanite stone in a beautiful ring was exchanged for illegal guns that will fuel a brutal regime and its equally brutal opponents.

And they expect you to be able to answer their questions.

Sometimes it will be the final retail consumer who will demand to know; sometimes it will be your wholesale customer.

Today, it's Whole Foods, which will remove Hershey's high-end chocolate brand, Scharffen Berger, from all store shelves by the end of the year "due to Hershey’s failure to assure that the cocoa is sourced without the use of forced child labor," according to a story off the CSR Newswire (full release, here). Whole Foods' action came as the result of "more than 15,000 customers demanding that ... Hershey [be held] accountable for exploiting children for profit."

The CSRWire report notes that, according to "a U.S. government-funded study, over 1.8 million children work in West Africa’s cocoa industry. Many of these children are exposed to dangerous working conditions and some are even trafficked and sold off to perform grueling labor."

Several major chocolate makers, including Mars and Ferraro, have committed to the ethical sourcing of chocolate, but Hershey's has, to date, refused.

This small news story may have struck me particularly forcefully because I've just finished reading The Responsible Company, by Yvon Chouinard (owner / founder of Patagonia) and Vincent Stanley (who initiated the company's Footprint Chronicles blog, which traces its suppliers' activities). The pair spoke recently at Yale, at a discussion co-sponsored by the Divinity School, the School of Forestry, and the School of Management (press release, here).

Chouinard spoke forcefully about a company's responsibilities not just to shareholders, but four other key stakeholders: employees, customers, communities, and nature. In "communities", he includes not just the physical locations in which a business operates, but also suppliers, as well as:
trade associations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), standards-setting organizations, nonprofits, and other citizens' organizations that may have an interest or something to say about what your company does. Advocacy groups like Greenpeace and PETA may confront you about your practices, as may individual citizen activists through social media like Facebook and Twitter. Friendly or not, those who engage with you are part of your community in its broadest sense and deserve your attention.

That sounds like a lot, doesn't it? But that's the reality of a globalized world. If you don't want to manage your supply chain thoughtfully, it might manage you ... right out of business.