Total Recall

Why Product Safety Has Taken a Back Seat

The agencies that oversee the government’s system to recall products depend heavily on manufacturers’ voluntary participation, and that can allow fatal dangers to slip through. Although recent changes at Consumer Product Safety Commission have helped, it and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration remain woefully unprepared to serve as consumers’ safety net.

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Jack Atzmon, who is a New Jersey father of a 1-year-old boy, contacted Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the summer of 2009 after the side of a dropside crib that he purchased several months earlier fell off into his wife’s hands as she was trying to lower it.

Alarmed that his son could have become trapped in the collapsed side, Atzmon notified CPSC, with the goal of protecting other families. His concern was well-placed: Over the past 3 years, the agency has recalled about 7 million cribs—including more than 2.1 million dropside cribs that were yanked from the market last November after four infants suffocated as a result of becoming trapped in collapsed models. CPSC was investigating reports of fatal dropside incidents at the time of Atzmon’s report, which involved a brand that has not been recalled.

The retailer later replaced Atzmon’s crib with a fixed-side model, but Atzmon says CPSC never followed up with him. When he contacted the agency this year, he was told that his case was closed in October 2009 without further action. When we contacted the agency about his case, a spokesperson told Consumers Digest that she could not comment on Atzmon specifically, but CPSC continues to investigate dropside cribs.

Atzmon has followed closely the recalls of several brands of dropside cribs since his family’s scare. He says the hardware that was in the crib that he purchased is, at least to his untrained eye, nearly identical to that in several of the recalled models—including those that were blamed for an infant suffocation death in the United States last year.

“I still don’t think they are taking this seriously,” he says. We agree.

Recalls of products that range from cribs to toys to Toyotas follow a common—and disturbing—thread: Virtually all product recalls are voluntary, and corporations in some cases delay the release of crucial safety information that shapes the timing and scope of official recall announcements. In other words, companies sometimes drag their feet in reporting crucial information, and the consequences in some cases are deadly.

Industry’s significant control over product recalls hampers the effectiveness of agencies, such as CPSC and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is in charge of automotive safety and vehicle recalls. Although both CPSC and NHTSA have the power to levy big fines if defects aren’t reported quickly enough, it’s largely up to companies to determine whether a defect or hazard exists and whether it merits a report to the government. (Our concern about the recall process extends, of course, to other federal agencies besides CPSC and NHTSA, but we focus on those two agencies, because they handle the bulk of recalls that don’t deal with food or pharmaceuticals.)

Toyota’s recall of more than 6 million cars in the United States, which started in October 2009 after sudden acceleration problems that eventually were linked to 52 reported deaths, rightly has focused media and congressional attention on the product-recall process. The Toyota recalls, along with CPSC’s massive crib recalls, reveal an enduring and troublesome flaw in the safety shield that is meant to protect us. The system still does not catch dangers fast enough, which allows hazards to linger in the marketplace and cause needless deaths and injuries.

MORE TEETH. Several recent changes at CPSC are encouraging. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 gave the agency new regulatory muscle, and an influx of money created the expectation that CPSC would be better positioned than ever before to protect U.S. consumers—particularly children—from hazards in the more than 15,000 types of products that it regulates.

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