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Product Recalls Do Not Always Prevent Risk

Aug 19, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Although product recalls are considered by some to be a powerful way for regulators to ensure consumer safety—and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) points to the growing number of recalls as its indication the system is working—sometimes recalls are not enough.  For example, often, no further action occurs following the recall announcement.

While the CPSC is responsible to ensure that about 15,000 products in the U.S. marketplace are safe, when there is a problem, the onus falls on the consumer to learn about the recall and act.  Unfortunately, only about 15% to 30% of consumers respond to recalls and, generally, over two-thirds of all recalled products go unaccounted for, leaving children and adults vulnerable to injuries.  Part of the problem is that notifications are issued via press releases which may or may not be picked up by media; consumers just don’t want to handle the paperwork, mailing, and repackaging involved, especially with a large piece or something requiring; and consumers often do not know an item’s recall status when purchased at a garage sale, online auction, or thrift shop.  Also, it remains unclear as to what happens to recalled products; some are destroyed, but others can end up in overseas markets with laxer safety standards.

According to Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a child safety advocacy group, "The recall system just doesn't work.  The very concept is backwards."  Cowles notes that product safety should occur before an item makes it to store shelves.  The consumer product safety bill just signed by President Bush is designed to do that by imposing stricter standards for wide variety of items; making it unlawful for retailers to sell recalled products; and requiring manufacturers to stamp children's products with tracking information.  Recall-registration cards will be included in some future packaging so consumers can be contacted directly if a product is deemed hazardous.  A good start; however, changes will take effect gradually as the CPSC and companies determine how to implement them and companies have a year to apply tracking labels.

Some unsafe products reach the market because many manufacturing standards are voluntary and only some products require testing before release.  Even products that meet the standards can end up being recalled for defects, many of which are discovered only after injuries or deaths are reported.

The CPSC can opt to reannounce a recall and advertising the recall to ensure publication is optional and many manufacturers rely on less-efficient ways of spreading the word about recalls, including posting fliers at stores, buying ads in newspapers, and notifying day-care centers.  Still, it is nearly impossible to stay current on all the recalls on consumer products used in the home and elsewhere. Cowles said the son of the group's founders died in a defective portable crib at a child-care provider's home five years after the product had been recalled.  "Almost everyone probably has something in their home or at some point has had something in their home that has ultimately been recalled," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

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