Is Wal-Mart the New FDA?

Is the mega-retailer playing doctor with all of us? Bil Browning of Bilerico fowarded me an interesting article from Forbes that asks this question in relation to Wal-Mart’s announcement that it will stop selling baby bottles containing the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA has been linked in some studies to cancer and other medical problems. If you’ve been around the parenting blogosphere for the past few months, chances are you’ve read about this.

The FDA, however, says that bottles with BPA are still okay to use. A campaign against BPA, although it has a grassroots feel (with some scientists warning against the product as well), seems to be having an effect, though. Many retailers, including the big W, are pulling products that include the chemical, even though there seems to be no consensus on whether the amount of BPA in bottles is enough to do harm. (I also think it’s an open question whether the substances replacing BPA plastics will be found to be harmful as well.)

The Forbes reporter, Marc Gunther, asked a Wal-Mart spokesperson, however, “why the company is removing a legal product, which may or may not be dangerous, while continuing to sell cigarettes, which are incontrovertibly harmful,” to which she responded “We sell products our customers want to buy.” Gunther asks, “How, exactly, did Wal-Mart become the new Food and Drug Administration?” and “Is this any way to make judgments about public health?”

Well, no, obviously. But that isn’t what Wal-Mart is doing. They are, as they say, responding to customer demands and running a business. Wal-Mart isn’t trying to do the FDA’s job. If anything, consumers are. Whether that is good or bad depends on what you think of the FDA’s evaluation process versus the wisdom of the masses, or at least a vocal part of the masses. (And whether you buy from Wal-Mart at all may also depend on what you think of their policies towards LGBT employees. With a 40/100 score on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, they’re far from the best.)

What this all brings to mind for me, though, is the importance of consumer action in determining what ends up on shelves. I can’t help thinking about the recent challenge to LGBT-inclusive children’s book Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, in which a library patron asked that the book be removed from the shelves or put in a special location. Part of the library director’s brilliant, respectful response was that there were LGBT parents, their children, and LGBT youth in the community who would not only support, but seek out, such works.

Here’s a little project for all of us for the summer, then: Even if you already own a copy of And Tango Makes Three, Between Mom and Jo, or other LGBT-inclusive books for children and teens, go check them out of your local library anyway. Bonus points for saying something like “This is a great book,” to the librarian at the desk. If you’re not out enough to do that, at least go post a positive comment about the work at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or other favorite online bookstores.