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When food’s risky and gadgets may cause harm, how do families learn about the recalls?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the FDA use tools and media to spread the word, but people need to look out for themselves, too

Rose and Gary Mesker shop for groceries at Ream’s in South Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Rose and Gary Mesker shop for groceries at Ream’s in South Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. How do parents and others find out about the product recalls that could impact the safety of people they love? And how much responsibility do consumers have to stay abreast of risks?
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Being a consumer is occasionally a risky business. Who didn’t shudder to learn that Tyson Foods is recalling 9 million pounds of chicken because it could be contaminated with listeria or that a baby was hurt in an infant glider?

Families buy millions of different products every year and a few hundred wind up being recalled because of defective design, labeling, packaging or contamination. Statistically, it’s a very small share overall, but sometimes missing a recall can be life-altering.

Scroll through the list of recalls just for the first week of July on the Consumer Product Safety Commission page and you’ll find a child’s dresser that could tip over if it’s not anchored to the wall, an expresso machine that could burn users, a generator that may overheat, a children’s robe that doesn’t meet flammability standards, a mirror with glue that might not keep it from crashing down and a liquid nicotine product a curious child might open because the packaging is insufficiently tricky.

The Food and Drug Administration safety alerts page that same week includes a chicken salad sandwich that may be contaminated by listeria, an injectable medication that might contain particulate matter and hand sanitizer that might be mistaken for a beverage because of the container design. FDA handles recalls of medications, supplements, food and cosmetics.

Those recalls don’t include what one might find by plugging a vehicle identification number into the National Highway Traffic Administration’s recall page to see if there’s an issue with the family car or truck.

Experts say the heavy lift that government agencies, manufacturers and retailers make to publicize recalls still leaves many consumers unaware. But they have some responsibility to stay abreast of risks. Still, if most product recalls don’t make the news or circulate widely on social media, how are people supposed to find out?

The Deseret News asked a spokesperson for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the government agency that oversees the vast majority of recalls, and an academic who studies recalls to learn how consumers can protect themselves and others when products are flawed.

The ongoing stream of recalls means there’s a lot to check and double-check, according to the researcher, Kaitlin D. Wowak, an associate professor at University of Notre Dame. One of her big interests is how businesses decide what to do about recalling a problematic product.

Bottom line and reputation

The Consumer Product Safety Commission uses every tool it can think of to inform consumers about recalls: a hotline (1-800-638-2772), press releases issued jointly with the company whose product is being recalled, email blasts to media and group email lists like Listserv, recall webpage saferproducts.gov for information or to sign up for notices, social media announcements, a downloadable recall app and more, said Karla Crosswhite-Chigbue, commission spokesperson. When they’re available, product registration cards make reaching the right consumers easier, she said.

Most recalls are voluntary, said Wowak, a collaboration between the commission and the company. She thinks companies sometimes act to avoid looking like they’re putting profits ahead of customers, which costs them loyalty.

Keeping customers lessens incentive “to push back on it if there could be a potential product defect,” she said. But some companies initially resist issuing a recall, which can be expensive financially and in terms of reputation.

One of the highest-profile recalls in the last year involved Peloton treadmills. The commission and Peloton initially sparred over whether recall was needed. The agency can’t simply order a recall, though it can sue to force one. And it can advise consumers not to buy the product. After initially resisting, the home exercise company in May issued a voluntary recall in response to reports a child had died, while other people and pets were injured from being pulled under Peloton’s treadmill.

Nov. 19, 2019 file photo shows Peloton logo on company’s stationary bike in San Francisco. A Peloton treadmill was subject to one of the most contentious recalls in recent history. While government agencies and retailers try to get the word out on defective or risky products, experts say consumers have to take the time to look for recalls.
This Nov. 19, 2019, file photo shows a Peloton logo on the company’s stationary bicycle in San Francisco. Peloton recalled a treadmill after one child died and 29 other children suffered from cuts, broken bones and other injuries from being pulled under the rear of the treadmill. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said May 5, 2021, that Peloton received 72 reports of adults, kids, pets or items, such as exercise balls, being pulled under the treadmill.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

The company and the government agency agree on the remedy in a recall, from full refunds to prorating value to simply providing a fix. The maker of a medicine bottle that’s not child-proof may issue a reconfigured cap. The agreement between Peloton and the commission included options from a full refund to installing new software and securing the treadmill’s location. Most companies would rather modify a product than take it back or fully replace it, so car and other recalls may provide a repair or part replacement.

Spreading the word

Consumers can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of recalls and figuring out how to keep on top of them. The big ones — either big companies or those that can cause grave physical harm — tend to get more media notice and circulation on social media, alerting more consumers.

Wowak said “recall fatigue” is real and hurts efforts to keep consumers safe. That’s one reason some companies prioritize publicizing the most severe, class 1 recalls.

People don’t register most products they use, so companies may have a hard time making sure the right people hear about a recall. Who registers their contact information when they buy children’s pajamas? On the other hand, buy them at an online retailer and the contact information is there, linked to the product. The same is true when buying from a retailer that links a rewards or membership program to purchases.

Costco, for instance, was able to contact customers who bought a specific batch of frozen fruit a few years ago and tell them about possible contamination. Being able to contact only those who bought the exact product reduces recall fatigue, too.

Stores usually post product recalls somewhere, often by the customer service counter. Wowak encourages people to look periodically or to ask how retailers where they frequently shop publicize product recalls.

Car dealerships know who buys their vehicles, which simplifies things when there’s a vehicle-related recall. But what happens when that car is sold to someone else? The trail of ownership is typically lost, so consumers must pay attention.

Stores are doing their best to help consumers learn about recalls, including through loyalty programs that don’t just provide discounts on sales products, but also create a database of what people buy. While some worry about privacy and who’s monitoring their purchases, it can definitely ease the challenge of notifying those who bought a recalled product.

Wowak said some stores have configured their cash registers so they won’t allow the purchase of an item that’s being recalled, in case it wasn’t all pulled off the shelf.

Meanwhile, Crosswhite-Chigbue said the commission works with reseller platforms like Amazon and eBay to make sure recalled items are not for sale. It’s harder to prevent direct-to-consumer sales from foreign manufacturers who often don’t adhere to product safety standards.

Families helping themselves

Not all recall information shared on social media is accurate — or complete. So consumers should check an official site, where specific information is also available.

Because not everyone’s on social media, people have to help each other. If a medication that’s commonly used by someone who is older is recalled, mention it to older relatives and friends.

The consumer role in the recall challenge is not just about being informed. Consumers need to report side effects for drugs or complain about unsafe products. They need to share recall information with their social media contacts, especially if the recalled item could cause injury or illness.

Crosswhite-Chigbue suggests checking product safety as a regular part of one’s routine. “Trust me, I know in our busy lives the last thing people have time to do is say let me go through my house and look my products up.”

Do it anyway, she said, at least the items that could cause harm if they were somehow defective. “Maybe every season, like when you’re getting rid of stuff and purging or spring cleaning — and If you have suspicions about something, don’t wait,” she said.

Some products cross jurisdictions, depending on the problem or the use, Crosswhite-Chigbue said. For instance, the FDA would oversee any recall of a vaping cartridge, while the Consumer Product Safety Commission would oversee the recall of a defective vaping device. Child car seats are overseen by the highway safety transportation agency or the Consumer Product Safety Commission depending on where and how it’s used — what she calls “little nuances.” Occasionally, agency heads have to talk through where jurisdiction belongs.

Besides paying attention to recalls to keep family safe, there’s a different incentive. Missing a recall puts a damper on making money by selling cast-offs. It’s illegal to sell a recalled product.