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Consumers Union follow-up comments to CPSC on July 2017 recall effectiveness workshop

Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, welcomes the opportunity to provide follow-up comments on the recent U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recall effectiveness workshop, which took place on July 25, 2017. We were pleased to participate in the event and have several thoughts to share after its conclusion.

As it continues its work to oversee recalls and protect consumers from hazardous products, we urge the CPSC to keep in mind the following:

Core to safety is culture. Fundamentally, the CPSC should reinforce principles and incentives for companies to carry out recalls in an effective manner. Companies should be proactive in preparing for how they will carry out a recall should one be necessary for consumer safety. They also should devote sufficient resources and marketing expertise to recalls to maximize consumer response—in fact, they should dedicate at least the same effort into a recall as went into selling the product in the first place. The CPSC has long sought to foster a culture of safety among regulated entities, including by making these recommendations. We understand and appreciate that companies will need to be the primary experts when it comes to understanding their particular marketplace and how best to reach consumers and spur action. But through frequent trainings for companies on how to carry out a recall, clear and accessible written information, and direct conversations on the specifics of a company’s safety culture, the CPSC can help ensure that companies rise to the top and implement best practices for recalls.

The CPSC also has a very important role in holding companies accountable through fines, consent decrees and other agreements, and other types of measures to change corporate behavior following improper or illegal conduct. We support the CPSC’s use of its civil penalties authority to the fullest extent under the law, as warranted, and urge the agency not to hesitate to levy such fines. These fines can deter future wrongdoing and have a meaningful impact on the advance steps taken by companies to prevent hazardous products from reaching the market in the first place. We also support the agency’s use of agreements with companies—particularly knowing or serial violators of the Consumer Product Safety Act—to establish internal compliance programs, appropriate internal controls and procedures, and disposal processes. The agency should seek to enter into such agreements whenever justified by the facts and important toward improving a company’s safety culture.

There are many ways to reach consumers. Companies can take many individual steps to reach consumers and encourage them to take part in a recall. New kinds of marketing techniques are becoming available at a rapid pace, and the CPSC should always encourage companies to make use of them—whether they involve reaching consumers through social media, microtargeting, or other means.

Each recall can help inform the next. The CPSC should rigorously track the effectiveness of different tools, approaches, and methods used by companies in carrying out recalls, and use this information to achieve greater clarity about what really works best. To inform this effort, the agency should ensure that companies provide adequate data that is granular enough to be helpful toward reaching conclusions. It could require an audit of the approaches taken by a company in carrying out particularly successful or unsuccessful recalls, or require that all recalling companies across the board report back to the CPSC on several key metrics.

Public statements by the CPSC can have a lot of power. The agency could help ensure that companies dedicate appropriate effort, resources, and expertise to recalls by publicly issuing its goals or expectations for recall performance. By setting public benchmarks, such as across each major product category or as a part of specific corrective action plans, the CPSC could ensure that the public knows the extent to which a recall is underperforming, meeting, or exceeding expectations. The eventual goal for recalls should of course be 100% participation—to get all hazardous products out of homes, workplaces, and the market—but setting incremental expectations could help verify that companies make appropriate progress toward that goal.

Additional time should be spent exploring several topics, including:

How to strengthen product registration. Wherever possible, consumers should be given the opportunity, at the point-of-sale, to seamlessly register the product under their name and contact information for the purposes of being notified in the case of a recall. In a public forum, the CPSC and stakeholders should further examine how to implement automatic or near-automatic product registration by retailers covering a substantial portion of consumer product sales.

How to measure the effectiveness of companies’ outreach. Expectations of what constitutes “effective” outreach to consumers or the media could be better defined, formalized, or strengthened to ensure that it occurs more often. In a public forum, the CPSC and stakeholders should further examine how to accomplish this objective, as well as foster a discussion of metrics to use for company responses to consumers’ recall queries, to get a better idea of whether consumers are well served in their attempts to contact the company regarding a corrective action.

How to ensure strong corrective action plans. Corrective action plans should adequately account for how a company prepares for consumer response to a recall (including ensuring adequate website capacity and clarity), reaches out to relevant supply chains, and coordinates with retailers. In a public forum, the CPSC and stakeholders should further examine how to ensure that this is the case, as well as which metrics should be used to measure the actual intervention, i.e., the actual effectiveness of corrective action plans. For instance, when there is an option for a consumer to receive a repair: (1) did the intervention remedy the risk; and (2) did the intervention not significantly degrade the performance of the product?

Thank you for your consideration. We appreciate the work of CPSC staff to plan and carry out the July 25 event, and look forward to engaging with the agency on a continuing basis to ensure that each recall serves consumers and keeps them safe from being hurt by hazardous products.