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Why not every product recall is total
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


August 21, 2007

In the midst of the scare over E. coli-contaminated spinach last fall, 87 percent of Americans said they were aware of the resulting recall. But 13 percent of the people who ate fresh spinach before the recall kept eating it afterward, even though most knew they shouldn't, according to research from Rutgers University's Food Policy Institute.

If that can happen when the news media is all over a story and the government is making scary pronouncements, imagine what happens when, say, a toaster sold three years ago with a possibly defective heating element is recalled. More than a few consumers, if they hear the news at all, shrug and keep on toasting.

As Americans worry through a string of recent, high-profile recalls involving everything from peanut butter to pet food to toothpaste to canned hot-dog sauce and toys with lead paint, experts acknowledge the nation's consumption engine does "full-speed-ahead" much better than it does "Whoa, Nellie." From making the recall decision to getting the word out to convincing consumers, there are all sorts of gaps.

It's one of the reasons the rash of problems lately with products made in China has set off alarm bells. The best place to ensure product safety is at the plant or the farm. Once something gets into the retail distribution system, getting it back out requires a whole lot of scrambling.

"The point is to be sure the food is being made right in the first place," said Sandy Glatter, senior director of quality assurance for O'Hara, Pa.-based grocer Giant Eagle.

The Consumer Federation of America is calling for increased funding for government efforts to keep out unsafe products, tougher penalties for manufacturers and more independent testing of finished goods to reduce the need for recalls.

Still, recalls seem unlikely to disappear, for even the most careful companies can have problems. While government officials say the market is full of problem-free merchandise, including goods from China, the issue now is how to hit the eject button more effectively.

One problem is that there are so many recalls.

Fast-track systems set up by the government to encourage companies to move quickly when they identify problems have helped avoid foot-dragging by corporate executives. But with so many items pulled, and some of them apparently low-risk, consumers have started tuning out.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported companies voluntarily pulled 471 products during fiscal 2006, the largest number in at least a decade, affecting about 124 million individual items.

This month alone, the CPSC's Web site listed recalls for drinking glasses, computer batteries, outdoor lounge chairs, horseback riding stirrups, window blinds, bicycles and sandal clogs, to name a few. That's in addition to the big Mattel announcement warning of problems with Polly Pocket and Doggie Day Care toys on the heels of an earlier recall that derailed some Thomas the Tank Engine pieces.

The commission isn't the only federal agency announcing recalls. Others may come from the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 recalls are issued every year, according to Dirk C. Gibson, an associate professor of mass communication at the University of New Mexico.

Getting the word out to the right people isn't easy. Many agencies and companies issue press releases to alert retailers and consumers, but the news media don't publicize them all, something baffling to officials who see lottery numbers appearing in the paper daily. Retailers may post signs in their stores but consumers may miss them.

Technology is seen as a tool to get around that problem. In 2003, the government created, a Web site meant to gather information on all federal product recalls in one place.

This spring, the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a push to get at least a million consumers to sign up for e-mail notification of recalls through the agency's Web site, A check earlier this month found 130,000 consumers had signed up so far.

The direct approach has proven effective in other situations. Because of registration information kept on file, car owners typically get personal letters alerting them to problems. Such recalls tend to have a 50 percent to 60 percent effective response rate, said Edward J. Heiden, president of a Washington firm that has studied recall effectiveness for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

That's a pretty high response considering recall rates for many low-priced consumer products may be in the single digits, he said.

Low return rates don't always mean consumers haven't addressed the problem.

In the case of the recall years ago of some inexpensive hair dryers, for example, Heiden said follow-up research found that some people just threw them away. Even when the manufacturer offered to pay for postage and a replacement, the customer would have had to pack the dryer up and get it to the post office.


Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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Ketchikan, Alaska