When It’s Hard to Recall

The recent recalls of dangerous toys and defective cribs have received a great deal of press attention, but closer analysis reveals that consumer product recalls are generally ineffective at getting most defective products out of consumers’ homes.

In many cases, the vast majority of the dangerous recalled items are never returned to the manufacturer. Confusing instructions, missing or late mailing labels, and store clerks who refuse to take returns are among the problems that consumers describe. Consumer advocates point to a problem with the system, which lets companies choose whether they’ll repair, replace, or refund defective or hazardous products.

Whatever the combination of reasons, it’s clear that many recall efforts simply don’t work. Annys Shin reporting in the Washington Post provides some recent alarming examples:

Retailer Target reported some of the worst results. It recalled 190,500 Kool Toyz playsets in November for containing lead paint. It offered consumers a full refund but reported 766 returns. The paint on some of the pieces contained as much as 15 times the lead allowed by law.

The company that had the best response was RC2, the Oak Brook, Ill., maker of Thomas & Friends toys. Consumers sent in 590,000 of the 1.5 million toys it recalled in March for potentially containing lead paint, company spokeswoman Nancy Davies said.

In comments supporting a petition calling for product registration cards to accompany children’s products, Consumers Union noted that “An evaluation of CPSC’s fast track recall program in 1998 estimated that manufacturers couldn’t account for 70-90% of sold infant products after they have been recalled.”

When even the more successful recalls are bringing in less than 50% of the products in question, that means the majority of the end users may still be at risk – of neurological damage related to lead paint exposure, suffocation from a defective crib rail, or other serious consequences.

It’s far better to prevent hazardous products from making it to shelves in the first place. But when a recall is necessary, though, CPSC needs to have stronger rules in place.

Or better yet, let’s use the current public interest in lead-contaminated toys to rethink the entire notification and replacement system.

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