Viewpoint -- When No One Heeds The Product-Recall Warning

Dec. 21, 2004
Manufacturers' attempts to protect consumers may ultimately fall on deaf ears.

There are few things that pique my interest as much as product-recall information. Part of the interest is wondering what, if anything, went wrong in the manufacturing process. But mainly it is concern about whether I am in possession of a faulty item. I will even forward information about recalls to others if I know they could potentially have said item. After all, what kind of friend would I be if I let someone eat tainted meat, drive a riding mower that may burst into flames or purchase a fast-food chain kids meal that contains a toy that could kill? To my surprise, many of my e-mails with my frantic warnings go unread. And when I query why, many just roll their eyes and label me paranoid. I am not paranoid. The definition of the word, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is a person afflicted with extreme suspiciousness, grandiose delusions or delusions of persecution. (Granted, I feel I'm being persecuted because I care about the well-being of my friends, but the other two descriptors are not true -- honest.) Indeed, I am not suspicious of all products, just the ones that have proven to make me sick or poke my eyes out. Furthermore, I have proof of such catastrophes in the form of a press release, sound bite or other news-dissemination service. Apparently not everyone pays as close attention to these warnings as me -- my family and friends included. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently ran an item addressing the issue. The article quoted Sally Greenberg, an attorney with Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports. She said: "A majority of [recalled] products out there never come back -- they remain out there, and in some cases we're talking about cribs and portable play sets and products that kill kids." So why don't others take product-recall information as seriously as me? Maybe it's because there are so many recalls out there that it's hard to keep track of them all. For example, the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has several recalls listed on its site for August 2002, including:

  • Shindaiwa Inc., Tualatin, Ore., is voluntarily recalling about 3,100 gasoline powered professional hedge trimmers. The catalytic muffler can overheat and damage the fuel tank, posing a fire hazard.
  • Black & Decker Corp., Towson, Md., is voluntarily recalling about 950,000 cordless drill/drivers. The drill's switch can malfunction and overheat, posing the possibility of a fire hazard to consumers. The company also is recalling about 6,100 table saws. The motor housing on the saw may crack, posing a risk of electric shock to consumers.
  • Excel Industries Inc., Hesston, Kan., is voluntarily recalling about 1,500 Hustler "FasTrak" riding lawn mowers. Excessive heat, vibrations and wear causes the fuel line to droop over time and rub against the transmission fan, causing the fuel line to be cut. This poses a fire hazard and a risk of burn injuries to consumers.
  • Adams Manufacturing Corp., Portersville, Pa., is voluntarily recalling about 2,740 plastic folding chairs. Some of the legs on these chairs were mis-assembled by the installer and a piece of the chair could be bent out of shape. This can allow the chair to collapse during use causing consumers to suffer injuries from falls.
  • Cannondale Corp., Bethel, Conn., is voluntarily recalling about 1,300 bicycles with defective stems. The stem can break away from the bicycle, causing a loss of control, falls and serious injury to riders.
While you can blame manufacturers for the faulty products, they don't necessarily deserve all the blame for defective products that don't get returned. Many companies do attempt to contact consumers once they realize there is a problem. Unfortunately many recall notices get tossed in the trash with the Publishers Clearing House notice from Ed McMahon. The Wall Street Journal article also quoted Laura Storms-Tyler, director of regulatory affairs and quality assurance for Olympus Optical Co. She told the newspaper: "When you send out your initial letter, I find you tend not to get the responsiveness you would like to see." In December 2001 Olympus Optical Co. sent out 4,700 recall notices for its bronchoscopes, flexible tubes with a small light and camera used to evaluate the airways of the lung. By March 2002, when the article was published, only 40% had been returned. Ultimately two people died due to complications from recalled medical devices that were still in service despite the company's efforts to reclaim them, the article went on to say. So what can manufacturers do to help ensure that recalled items are returned? The CPSC's Recall Handbook offers some suggestions, including:
  • A joint news release from CPSC and the company.
  • A dedicated toll-free number and/or fax number for consumers to call to respond to the recall notice.
  • Direct notice to consumers known to have the product -- identified through registration cards, sales records, catalog orders or other means.
  • Notices to distributors, dealers, sales representatives, retailers, service personnel, installers and other persons who may have handled or been involved with the product.
  • Incentives such as money, gifts, premiums, or coupons to encourage consumers to return the product.
  • Point-of-purchase posters.
  • Free pickup at the consumer's home (so the consumer doesn't have to package and mail the product). While the above tactics still may not reach all intended parties, they may reach a curious person who can't help but spread the word about defective items. And sooner or later the message will get through. Traci Purdum is an IW associate editor. She is based in Cleveland.
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