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Consumer Reports investigates the trouble with recalls

July 6, 2004
Lauren Hackett (914) 378-2561 or
Alberto G. Rojas (914) 378-2434

August Issue Uncovers How Recalls Work and How Consumers Can Get the Latest Information

YONKERS, NY – In recent years, the number of products that have been subject to a government recall has risen substantially. An in-depth investigation into the trouble with recalls in the August 2004 issue of Consumer Reports (CR) points out that too often, word of a recall doesn’t reach the owners of defective products. A large percentage of products subject to recall remain on the road and in the home. Almost one-third of all recalled vehicles – more than half of all toys, clothes, appliances, tools, and electronics gear, and three-fourths of child car seats – are never repaired or returned to stores.
CR points out that part of the reason lies in the recall system itself. There is a complex, decentralized system granting recall authority to six federal agencies, each with its own rules and procedures.
CR also notes that the system can break down because product flaws aren’t reported to agencies in the first place, and because companies are unable – or unwilling – to track down and notify customers once defects are recognized. Additional problems reducing recall effectiveness include product-owners’ inability to identify model numbers once they’ve tossed the packaging, or consumer apathy or simply the passage of time.
The Consumer Reports investigation points out that nearly 19 million vehicles were recalled in 2002 – about 1 of 11 on the road. Last year, recalls of products such as packaged food, drugs, and medical devices were up nearly 24 percent over 1999, and 2004 is on a record pace for household-product recalls. In all, more than 5,000 recalls were initiated last year, covering more than 60 million products.
How Recalls Work
Consumer-protection laws such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act require manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and importers to notify agencies when they learn about a safety hazard in their products. But the Consumer Reports investigation found that consumers are the primary whistleblowers. And although federal agencies initiate recalls, companies carry them out. If the company balks, resolutions can take months.
“Although most cases are black-and-white, and companies should report the problem, some cases involve shades of gray,” says R.David Pittle, Consumers Union’s Senior Vice President, Technical Policy.
A company might not report a problem or might protest a recall order because it contends that its product doesn’t pose a unique hazard, because it fears negative publicity, or because it recoils at the expense.
But in reality, companies and the government come to terms regarding the recall about 95 to 99 percent of the time.
But the recall system itself often works poorly. Instead of consumers trusting that they’ll be notified, they may have to search for the needed information to protect themselves and their families. Consumer Reports publishes regular recall information every month in the Recalls & Safety Alerts section and also on www.ConsumerReports.org. But several factors can make it hard for consumers do to find out about recalls:
 Manufacturers might not tell you: If a business keeps track of its customers, the government requires it to make a good-faith effort to notify anyone who bought a defective product. But what constitutes a good-faith effort is negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
 Some company Web sites lack information: As a rule, companies aren’t required to post recall notices online. Some do and some don’t.
 Only serious drug recalls are widely publicized: Pharmacies are required to review records and contact patients only for Class 1 recalls, the most serious of the three classes in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) reporting system.
 There are holes in the safety net: Consumers may assume that the
government has certified most products safe; that is not generally the way that it works. Although National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has many safety standards for vehicles and the FDA must approve drugs, most products are made in accordance with voluntary industry standards, and are allowed on the market without government approval.
 Registering your purchase is a pain: Consumers rarely return product registrations, often because they are discouraged by the litany of marketing questions on the warranty card.
 Fresh-food recalls may come too late. When contamination occurs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture asks major media to get the word out and notifies wholesalers and retailers, but there’s no assurance that consumers will hear about the recall.
What Consumers Can Do
In the 23 years since Consumer Reports began listing safety recalls regularly, the quality, quantity and timeliness of information about potentially dangerous goods has improved. But the information won’t fall into consumers’ laps.
The main source of information is www.Recalls.gov, the federal government’s new portal to recalls of all types. Consumers can connect to the six agencies that handle recalls; report unsafe products; research the recall history of some products; register to receive free weekly e-mail newsletters from the Food and Drug Administration and breaking safety announcements from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
There is also recall information in every issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org. In addition, many manufacturers’ and some retailers’ Web sites post recall information. Consumer Reports rated the quality of the recall information provided by the web sites of 15 major manufacturers and retailers in the US that have made or sold goods that were recalled within the past few years. The full report will be available for free on www.ConsumerReports.org.
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