Lesson: Rethinking Recalls

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Product recalls have long been used by private firms, and more recently by government agencies, to inform consumers of malfunctioning or dangerous products and remove them from the market. One of the many groups that issues recalls is the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC has jurisdiction for recalls on all consumer products not specifically regulated by other branches of the government, giving it great influence over all American consumers.

Over the past two years the CPSC has greatly increased the number of recalls it has issued. Its activity has increased so much that the Washington Post has commented "recall notices are coming out of the CPSC faster than new cars off an assembly line." This flurry of recalls prompts two important questions. Are these recalls really necessary? And, what impact are they having on consumers?

When assessing CPSC recalls, it is important to note that the agency regulates relatively safe products. The products that are involved with most severe accidents, such as automobiles, boats, guns, and drugs, are heavily regulated by other government agencies. Further, private safety standards groups, such as the American National Standards Institute and Underwriter's Laboratories, are very effective in ensuring safe consumer products. Therefore, the need for CPSC recalls has traditionally been very small and makes the recent jump in the number of recalls surprising.

When the recalls coming out of the CPSC are closely analyzed, it becomes apparent that many are simply unnecessary and others are very questionable. A good example of an unnecessary CPSC action is the recall of a leather dye solvent. This product was sold nationwide for 50 years without causing a single injury. However, the solvent was recalled by the CPSC for not having a child-proof cap, although most similar supplies do not need to have specialized caps.

The dye solvent was a rather specialized product used to dissolve leather shoe dye. Few people, besides shoe repairmen, would even know how to use the solvent and most shoe repairmen would not leave their supplies lying around for children to play with. Further, the solvent was sold in a small container. This means that it was likely to be purchased, used, and disposed of in a short period of time, thus greatly reducing the likelihood of a child finding a half-used bottle of the solvent lying around. Simply stated, a small bottle of leather dye solvent is not something commonly found around children.

Regardless, the CPSC demanded a recall and the manufacturer cooperated rather than face the high costs and negative publicity of fighting the CPSC. Because of the recall, however, the company had to discontinue production of the product. Consumers can no longer buy a product proven safe by half a century of real life testing. Instead, consumers must now substitute products that may not fit their needs as well, may be more expensive, and may not have the excellent safety record of the recalled solvent. Thanks to the recall, consumers now have one less choice in the marketplace and may be less safe because of it.

Another questionable CPSC recall concerned a Rolling Clock Push Toy, considered only potentially dangerous because it could present a choking hazard if broken into pieces. The toy was only potentially dangerous because an unlikely succession of events had to transpire for any real harm to occur. First, parents would have to ignore the "not for children under 3 years" warning label and allow the toy to be used near a very young child. Someone would then have to drop the toy hard enough, from several feet in the air, to break it into small pieces. In all likelihood this would have to be an older child or an adult to achieve the height necessary to shatter the toy, although the exact force needed to break the toy was not provided by the CPSC. Whoever broke the toy would then have to leave the pieces lying around until a small child came along. Finally, a completely unobserved child would have to pick up a small piece of the broken toy and attempt to eat it, which could result in the child choking. As no known injuries have occurred with this toy, this scenario probably never occurred in real life. However, imagining this scenario was reason enough for the CPSC to issue a recall of 15,000 of these toys.

These are just two of the many examples which illustrate the fact that the new increase in CPSC recalls is unnecessary and is negatively impacting consumers. Through these excessive recalls the CPSC is causing higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. Further, by unnecessarily scaring consumers away from new products, the recalls may cause people to continue using older, less safe products.

In response to recalls such as these, consumers need to be very cautious, remembering that careful shopping and proper use of products are the best ways to increase safety. Since recalls can greatly increase prices, limit consumer choice, and may decrease safety, they should be used sparingly. However, there are several things consumers can do on their own to improve safety.

1. When purchasing products, look for the seal of approval from standards setting organizations, such as Underwriters Laboratories and the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association.
2. Do informal testing on the product yourself, such as checking to be sure toys cannot easily be broken, before you purchase an item a small child will be using.
3. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for the proper use of products.
4. Carefully supervise young children to be sure they are not exposed to potentially dangerous objects.
5. Regularly check products for damage and wear and tear that could cause a safety hazard.
6. Quickly report problems with a product to the manufacturer.

Consumers should also consult the article "Product Standards and Consumers" written by Carol Dawson and published in the March 1996 edition of Consumer's Research magazine. This article provides more information on standards setting organizations. Finally, consumers need to remember to scrutinize not only the products they buy, but also recalls on consumer products.

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