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Why It Can Take Decades (and Sometimes Deaths) to Recall a Product

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Why It Can Take Decades (and Sometimes Deaths) to Recall a Product

Jackie Nelson

Jackie Nelson

Feature Writer

6 min. read

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The harsh reality of the modern world we live in is that your child’s safety isn’t the only factor when considering the recall of a product. Case in point: Fisher-Price recently voluntarily recalled its Rock ‘N Play sleeper after a decade on the market and almost 5 million products in the hands of consumers. A Consumer Reports investigation found the Rock ‘N Play was connected to the deaths of 32 infants over the years.

You might think after just one death that the manufacturer would revisit the concept and design of the device and issue a recall on the current product. The seemingly logical, simple decision to recall a potentially dangerous product can be a complex and lengthy process – but why? How did we get here?

What takes so long?

Recalls commonly are voluntary after a little nudge from federal agencies that run the show of recalling items. Each federal agency is assigned to a different sector of goods and has its own unique recall process, but most rely on consumers to report incidents and complaints.

Voluntary recall decisions are often weighed against a company’s potential loss; loss of reputation, loss of consumer trust, and the loss of profits from a popular product, like a common must-have nursery item in the Fisher Price case. However, most people would agree those losses are nothing compared to the loss of a child.

With lawsuits, money and reputation at stake, Mattel’s (Fisher-Price’s parent company) approach to remedying the issue was to indicate the danger resulted from misuse of the device. When the company released its official recall statement, it stuck to its no-admission-of-guilt attitude: “… While we continue to stand by the safety of all of our products, given the reported incidents in which the product was used contrary to safety warnings and instructions, we’ve decided in partnership with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), that this voluntary recall is the best course of action.” Unfortunately, the decision, after years of popularity on the market, came a little too late for some families.

According to reporting by the Washington Post, consumer agencies have the power to keep companies accountable, as much – or as little – as they want. The chairperson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) holds the most power in the agency and is appointed by the president of the U.S. and confirmed by the Senate. With agency leadership being part of the political appointee process, there is another layer added to the regulatory process – public opinion and electoral politics. As opinion enters into the equation, the objective consideration of consumers’ interests can get even more complicated.

One recent example of this was in March 2017, when the CPSC took preliminary steps to recall the Britax B.O.B. jogging stroller after multiple instances were reported of the front wheel falling off and causing crashes, sending children face first into the pavement. According to a report this month by The Washington Post:

“The agency’s Republican chairwoman kept Democratic commissioners in the dark about the stroller investigation and then helped end the case in court.” The Post went on to report, “But, consumer advocates said changes at the Consumer Product Safety Commission could be a worrisome sign of regulators pulling back at an agency that oversees safety in 15,000 everyday products, from toys and dressers to lawn mowers and table saws.”

With infant lives at stake, one might assume safety would be the top priority. But the path to recall isn’t always as straightforward as consumers might imagine.

The recall process in a nutshell

Sometimes it’s as simple as the responsible manufacturer making an announcement at the first sign of danger. Other times, the path to a recall takes many steps:

1. Before the recall notice, consumers are likely the first to notice a defective product. Consumer complaints roll in to the appropriate agency or the company itself. Consumer reports of adverse reactions, faulty performance, injury or fatality are recorded.

2. Federal agencies step in to analyze the data and work with the company to communicate issues to the consumers.

Product agencies include:

USDA (meat, poultry, eggs)
FDA (anything you can ingest, includes pets)
NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)
CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission)

It’s up to the manufacturer if they want to recall the product or simply issue a warning to consumers about safety of use. An agency may also be able to override the manufacturer and issue a mandatory recall – which is much more rare and includes legal action. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, giving the FDA authority to issue a mandatory recall when a company fails to voluntarily recall unsafe food after being asked. Since then, there has only been one mandatory recall from the FDA.

3. Warnings may be announced. These can lead to “awareness campaigns” or the release of educational materials for further instruction on appropriate precautions of use. As Pamela Gilbert, CPSC executive director from 1995 to 2001, told the New York Times in a report on the Fisher Price recall: “Consumers react to product recalls with more urgency and more care and attention than they do for warnings … when deaths are involved, especially for babies and children, warnings are really not the appropriate remedy.”

4. Time passes. With more time, more consumers might be at risk and inevitably, more incidents, injuries, or even deaths can occur.

5. Recall is announced with more pressure from consumer agencies, media outlets and users of the product. The dangerous or faulty product can be returned for a refund or voucher and no longer poses a threat to you or your family’s health. To get from step one to step five can take years, or even a decade in the case of the Fisher-Price incline sleeper.

What does a recall do to the market?

Aside from the obvious impact of getting a faulty and/or potentially dangerous product off of the market, there’s quite an avalanche effect from the issuing of a recall. First, and even before the recall, a company could face consumer backlash and diminished trust among the public.

Next, when merchandise is recalled, competitors will scramble to make innovative updates to similar products. We would imagine that similar recalls or updates to items similar to the Rock ‘N Play incline sleeper might appear now. Incline sleepers have been called “inherently unsafe” by KidsInDanger.org, which says the sleepers do not align with the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to reduce SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

At the same time, it’s possible for new legislation and lawsuits to arise as consumers and consumer advocacy groups press for more action.

How can you stay on top of the recalls

With consumers continuing to be on the front lines of experiencing potentially hazardous outcomes from a product, it’s important to stay informed at all times. When it comes to the safety of children, you can never be too safe. Education is key to making the right decisions in the products we use and consume on a daily basis.

To become informed on the risks, you can stay on top of news outlets and national publications that frequently report preemptive recall news. You can also have the news come to you by subscribing to email updates from Recalls.gov, which include relevant information from all the government consumer agencies. You can also easily register your products online as soon as you purchase them for information on any specific recalls or safety updates.

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