Overpublicizing Product Recalls Hurts Consumers

November 22, 2010 — By

Women Experiencing Recal lFatigueIt’s a bold statement that needs some qualifying, but the evidence is mounting – over-coverage of product recalls may damage recall effectiveness, putting consumers at greater risk for injury. It is a problem referred to as “recall fatigue,” and it occurs when a consumer quite literally gets tired of hearing about recalls.

With the passing of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in 2008, the media has covered more and more stories about recalled products.  From bikes to refrigerators, cribs to snowmobiles, we hear news stories every week, if not every day, about something that has been recalled.

One might expect that all this coverage makes consumers more aware of product recalls and, to some extent, that is true.  Consumers are now more aware than ever that there are many, MANY product recalls.  Unfortunately, they also may be growing LESS aware that something they actually own has been recalled as the barrage of messaging causes them to simply stop listening.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) alone issues an average of 400 recalls per year, accounting for 57 million individual product units, 25 million of which are products intended for children aged 12 and under.  If there are 117.5 million households in the US, about 29 million of which include children under 13, a very quick calculation tells us that, on average, only about half of US households will have something recalled by the CPSC each year.  Although households with children are four-times more likely to own a recalled product than those without children, even they will have only one or two of their items recalled by the CPSC in any given year.

In other words, of the 400 product recalls issued, 398 most likely do not apply to you.  It is no wonder we stop paying attention after about, say, 30 irrelevant notices.  But what if recall number 31 is for your refrigerator that has been found to spontaneously ignite?  Or your baby’s crib that has killed at least four children and injured more than 20 others?  Or your very expensive bicycle that falls apart during a ride, causing broken collarbones, concussions, broken ribs and bruises?

It is a very bad time to stop listening.

Lyndsey Layton covered recall fatigue this summer in her Washington Post article, “Officials worry about consumers lost among the recalls.” In it, Layton quotes Jeff Farrar of the FDA and William K. Hallman, professor of human ecology at Rutgers who has studied consumer attitudes toward recalls.

“It’s a real issue,” said Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration, who said even his wife has complained about the difficulty of keeping pace with recalls. “That number is steadily going up, and it’s difficult for us to get the word out without oversaturating consumers.”

Professor Hallman commented, “There is so much information out there, if you paid attention to every recall notice that came out every day, you’d go nuts.”

Experts have long agreed that the solution is direct communication of recalls to the actual owners of the products.  However, direct communication is easier said than done and is met with numerous challenges. The most obvious problem is that manufacturers rarely know who owns their products. While the CPSC is test-driving a new requirement to included registration cards with some nursery items, overuse of registration cards for marketing purposes has left consumers leery of any product registration program initiated by companies associated with selling the products.

Some of the most successful recalls have been achieved when participating retailers have loyalty or membership programs and sophisticated systems that track every item a member-customer purchases, allowing the company to call or email product owners.  The majority of retailers, however, do not have such programs in place or do not track detailed data long enough to be useful for all recalls, which can occur months or years after the item was sold.

Further complicating matters is the fact that products last, on average, ten years or more and may be resold, donated or handed down several times over the product’s lifetime.  Even if manufacturers or retailers could identify the original owner, it may not be the same person who possesses the item at the time of a recall.  Remember that US households are likely to own only one or two of the products recalled by the CPSC each year.  Yet, because of low recovery rates, WeMakeItSafer estimates that the average household has at least three recalled products in use at any given time.  For households with children, that number climbs to eight recalled products in use, each one a potential, preventable injury or death waiting to happen.

With company-to-consumer communication infeasible, the CPSC and others have instead suggested that consumers stay on top of recalls, checking recall announcements daily or subscribing to RSS and twitter feeds.  That, coupled with the multiple news stories and re-tweets about the same products, brings us right back to where we started.  It is simply too much, mostly inapplicable information for consumers to keep track of without growing tired.  Yet, ignoring recalls can have devastating consequences.

It is a riddle that WeMakeItSafer is determined to solve. After studying the issues associated with product safety information tracking and dissemination, WeMakeItSafer built the
Items I Own” web application to address many of these problems.  Notably, Items I Own makes direct communication of product recalls possible no matter where an item was purchased or how long it has been in circulation.  It gives consumers a free, private place to store information about the items they own without fear of receiving unwelcomed marketing, while the system takes care of the safety monitoring.

Using complex algorithms, Items I Own checks belongings against the past ten years of recalls, then monitors daily for new recalls, emailing the product owner only if there is specific information, relevant to his or her items.

With WeMakeItSafer, consumers no longer need to pay attention to every news flash, report or tweet in order to remain safe.  This is a good thing considering that most simply do not have the time or patience to pay attention anyway, and may have already tuned out.

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  1. I really wish lawmakers had realized this and gave the CPSC discretion as to which violations they could pursue with recalls. My family is in far more danger from a toaster that could set the house on fire than they are from a tiny dot of paint in the eye of a Barbie doll that has 301 ppm of lead in it instead of 300.

    I consider myself a pretty well informed person, but I don’t have time to drink from the firehose that recalls have turned into nowadays, even with new technology like RSS feeds and tweets. And I don’t fill out registration cards either. As shocking as this must sound to “safety junkies,” I really want my transaction with the company to be OVER once money changes hands. I don’t want them pestering me to replace my year-old carseat with the latest model. I don’t want diaper and formula samples in my mailbox. And I don’t want them spamming my inbox or selling my email address, because when they do it gives me yet another firehose to drink from. I’d have to filter through all their spam and ads and their affiliates’ spam and ads to find the recall notice.

    3 of my kids are boys; I have enough “firehoses” to deal with.

    • Jennifer says:

      I agree. In a perfect world, we would simply be able to trust that everything we purchase is safe to use with no more potential harm than is reasonably expected from whatever the product is. Manufacturers would have tested the product thoroughly.

      The sad truth is, some manufacturers are unscrupulous and others make mistakes. The recall system was intended to handle these situations but, as you point out, it is flawed. Mixing marketing and safety messages has only confused the matter.

      Take a look at Items I Own. The idea is to turn off the fire-hose and only provide you with information relevant to the items you actually own. We’re still in private beta, but I’ll email a beta invitation code to you.

      Oh, and your comment about boys made me laugh. I have two of my own.