Defective Products Leave Consumers with 'Recall Fatigue'
McDonald's asked customers to return 12 million glasses emblazoned with the character Shrek. Kellogg's warned consumers to stop eating 28 million boxes of Froot Loops and other cereals. Chef Boyardee asked the public to return 15 million pounds of Spaghetti-Os, and seven companies recalled 2 million cribs.
And that was just a fraction of the products recalled in the United States last month.
Government regulators, retailers, manufacturers and consumer experts are concerned that recall notices have become so frequent across a range of goods that the public is suffering from "recall fatigue."
In many cases, people ignore urgent calls to destroy or return defective goods.
One recent study found that 12 percent of Americans who knew they had recalled food at home ate it anyway. Hasbro recalled the Easy Bake Oven in 2007 because the fingers of 24 children had gotten stuck in the door, and the toymaker received 249 more reports of injuries during the next six months. One 5-year-old girl was so seriously burned that doctors had to partially amputate a finger.
The problem is twofold: Some people never learn that a product they own has been recalled, and others know they have a recalled product but don't think anything bad will happen.
"The national recall system that's in place now just doesn't work," said Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco. "We call it the Chicken Little syndrome. If you keep shouting at the wind — 'The sky is falling! The sky is falling!' — people literally become immune to the message."
The government maintains a website, www.recalls.gov, offering information about all kinds of recalls, and consumers can subscribe for e-mail alerts about specific products. Federal officials rolled out a smartphone application Friday so consumers can check recalls as they shop.
But it amounts to overload, said William Hallman, professor of human ecology at New Jersey's Rutgers University.
"There is so much information out there, if you paid attention to every recall notice that came out every day, you'd go nuts," said Hallman, who has studied consumer attitudes toward food recalls with a grant partially paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He conducted a national survey last year in which 12 percent of respondents said they knowingly had eaten a recalled food.
"Human beings are complex creatures," he said. "Some do exactly the opposite of what they're told to do."
Any recall has two targets: retailers and consumers. Government regulators say most stores can quickly pull defective products from shelves and block sales at the register. The tougher battle is getting the consumer to act.
"We do a good job of getting dangerous products off store shelves, but we do believe the greatest challenge is getting dangerous products out of the homes," said Inez Tenenbaum, chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversaw 465 product recalls in 2009, involving tens of millions of items ranging from circular saws to Jesus Fish Beads.
If a product is relatively expensive, consumers are more likely to return it for a replacement or a repair. They're also more likely to act if they perceive an immediate threat to their health or safety.
Vehicle owners are among the most responsive, returning 73 percent of recalled autos and 45 percent of recalled child-car seats in 2009, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Of the 7.7 million vehicles recalled by Toyota in the past year, 3.7 million, or just under half, have been brought in and repaired, said Brian Lyons, a company spokesman. The company expects that number to grow because replacement parts for some vehicles have only just been made available, he said.
Meanwhile, consumers return about 30 percent of everyday consumer goods when they are recalled, said Marc Schoem, the top recall official at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In cases involving a costly appliance, or a product where a defect could be lethal, such as scuba-diving equipment, about 60 percent of consumers return the product, he said.
When it comes to food recalls, the government doesn't estimate the average return rate.
William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in major food-poisoning cases since 1993, said food recalls generally are not effective, especially when they involve perishables, vegetables or meat, for example. "By the time they figure out they have an outbreak and they can connect it to a food, most of that food is already eaten," he said.
And when it comes to foods with a longer shelf life, Marler said people have often eaten the product and become sick after it has been recalled.
Despite a highly publicized recall in 2007, consumers continued to eat Peter Pan peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, and at least 100 people fell ill after the government warnings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The same year, Banquet frozen potpies were recalled in October because of salmonella contamination, but consumers were eating the pies and getting sick through December, according to the CDC.
The best way to prod consumers to respond to recalls is for manufacturers to notify them directly, experts say.
Vehicle manufacturers use registration information to track down customers. "When you get a letter from Toyota saying there's a safety problem, you can't say, 'They're not talking about me,' " Hallman said.
Costco uses the data gathered through cards carried by its 56 million club members and calls them within 24 hours if they have purchased a recalled item. The company follows up with a letter.
"When we get a recall notice, I can tell you everybody who bought that product, exactly where and when they bought that, and I have their phone and address," said Costco's Wilson. "I'll make a phone call the day the recall is announced, in a human voice, and the message goes right to them and tells them what's going on, in clear, easy-to-understand language."
The result is that the vast majority — in some cases 90 percent — of Costco customers return recalled products to the store, Wilson said.
The federal government ought to require merchants to follow a similar model, provided customer data are used only for safety recalls, Wilson said.
Reaching consumers directly is the idea behind a federal law that took effect this week. It requires manufacturers of durable toddler and baby items — cribs, high chairs and bathtubs, among them — to include registration cards with those products.