A New Era for Product Recalls. Or is it?

February 1, 2011 — By

When the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) was passed in 2008, we predicted that the more stringent safety requirements would result in a higher number of product recalls. Were we wrong?


Consumer product recalls in the United States have steadily increased over the past twelve years with nearly 400 recalls announced in 2010 versus just over 150 in 1999. In total, the CPSC has announced approximately 3,600 safety recalls of consumer products over the period.1

We saw the highest number of recalls in a single year during 2007, when just over 450 recalls were issued.  The jump was attributed to a wave of lead and magnet related toy recalls, a series that ultimately led to the development of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which passed in August 2008.

The CPSIA introduced more than forty new rules and regulations that, for the most part, began rolling out in early 2009, and continue to take effect into 2011.  Although some, including WeMakeItSafer, predicted that the more stringent laws would lead to an increase in recalls as manufacturers adjusted to the new laws, we have not yet seen evidence of such an increase in the overall number of recalls.  Recognizing that it is not entirely statistically sound given the sample size, when we take a simple regression on yearly number of recalls from 1999 through 2007, before the tide began to change, we would have predicted there to be around 400 recalls in 2010, and that is exactly what happened, despite the passing of the CPSIA.  The CPSC issued approximately 380 recalls in 2010.

Before we conclude that the CPSIA has had no impact on product recalls, let us dig a little deeper. Given that the majority of regulations imposed by the CPSIA relate to products intended for children, we also looked at what pre-2007 recall numbers would have predicted for children’s product recalls in  2010.  The results were quite different.  Our regression analysis predicted that there would be just over 100 children’s recalls in 2010, when, in actuality there were almost 170, nearly 70% more than predicted.  There were similar differences in 2008 and 2009.

So, perhaps we were not entirely wrong after all. For the types of products impacted by the CPSIA and its 2007 catalyzing events, the number of recalls did, in fact, rise… dramatically!

The question is, where did all the non-children’s product recalls go?  If the overall number of recalls has not significantly increased, but children’s product recalls have, recalls of products not intended for children – such as household goods and hand-tools – must have been edged out.   According to the pre-2007 trends, there should have been over 300 products not intended for children recalled in 2010, yet, in reality, there were only just over 200.

The CPSC has not been shy in expressing deep concern over the tremendous strain that the CPSIA will have, and has had, on the relatively small agency’s resources, and expressly stated from the beginning that certain goals and agency services would be impacted:

The implementation of this new legislation, with challenging deadlines and tasks, may delay some of our work, such as a Strategic Plan revision. Other strategic goals and linked annual performance goals set for quality services and customer satisfaction for CPSC’s web site, hotline, clearinghouse, Ombudsman, and State Partners may also be affected. 2008 CPSC Performance and Accountability Report

We have also heard from Commissioners that they would purposely focus first on enforcing the new regulations on products that affect the populations most at risk, i.e., young children.  Perhaps it should be expected, then, that recalls, too, would shift even more toward children’s products.

We do wonder, though, what might be the long term effects of placing such a strong focus on one area while potentially neglecting another?  Will manufacturers of products not intended for children begin to take more risks while the CPSC is distracted with all those children’s items?  Could it eventually lead to a swing in the other direction and cause the development of stricter regulations for non-children’s products, beyond what is covered in the CPSIA?

What do you think? Have we entered a new era for product recalls?
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1 Annual recall numbers reported by WeMakeItSafer and the CPSC may differ. WeMakeItSafer reports product recalls based on the number of new or expanded recall announcements published by the CPSC within a calendar year and treats each announcement as one recall. The exception to this treatment is when multiple, dissimilar products are included in one announcement, in which case the different products are treated as separate recalls. The CPSC reports annual recall numbers based on a fiscal year that begins in October.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for the comment, WH. Comparing recalls to the number of products in the market is a great idea and would make a nice study. As you point out, with descriptive statistics – such as counts, averages, trends, etc. – it is difficult to prove much of anything given the numerous confounding factors. What these data do, however, is highlight areas where we can and should dig deeper. To me, the value in data is as much about inspiring us to think, question and discuss as it is about proving right and wrong.

    As time permits, I will publish more summaries of recall data, so please let me know if there is anything in particular you’d like to see. We track nearly 100 points of data on every recall issued by the CPSC.

  2. Wacky Hermit says:

    Great post! You’d expect, of course, that if you pass a law that makes perfectly safe products violate it because they haven’t properly documented their safety, you’d get an increase in children’s product recalls. Your analysis seems to bear that out. Unfortunately, the concomitant increase in actual safety that Rachel Weintraub and her friends expected to see hasn’t materialized. They blame it on the stays of enforcement, of course. I wonder what they’ll blame it on once the stays of enforcement expire, since the “unintended” consequences of CPSIA are likely to continue as long as CPSIA persists.

    If you’d like some more statistics homework, it’d be fun to look at not just the nominal recalls, but the *percentage* of recalled products. I’m curious to know if CPSIA has resulted in a shrinking number of children’s products in the market. Thanks to the stays of enforcement, it may not have yet, outside of certain industries that got hit super-hard by CPSIA (youth ATVs and the like). And it’d be difficult to suss out how much of any decline is due to CPSIA and how much to the economy. But when the stay expires, if Congress hasn’t done anything about CPSIA yet, I predict you’ll see a huge dropoff that can’t be explained by the economy. Then maybe you’ll get the drop in children’s recalls you were looking for– not because the products are any “safer”, but because there just aren’t as many of them.