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Recalled items faulted in numerous consumer complaints

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About 20 percent of incidents reported on a new consumer complaints database involved children’s products, and some occurred after the products were recalled, according to an analysis by a consumer advocacy group.

Kids in Danger found that 474 of the complaints posted from April through August involved everything from pacifiers to trampolines. About 44 percent resulted in injuries and an additional 1.5 percent resulted in death, the group reported.

But the most alarming pattern is that one in seven of the incidents involved a recalled product and more than half took place after the recall, showing that safety hazards continue even after products are cleared off store shelves, the group said.

With these results, the group aims to underscore the usefulness of the consumer complaints database, www.saferproducts.gov, in identifying emerging hazards. The federal database has been under attack by business groups and their allies since it was created as part of a sweeping product-safety reform measure in 2008.

Those critics, including the commission’s two Republican appointees, say they are worried that any inaccurate information in the database would unfairly damage a company’s reputation, hurt its bottom line and mislead consumers. They also argue that the database drains precious resources from a small agency with a heavy workload. Earlier this year, they unsuccessfully pushed to strip its $3 million in funding.

“I beg you to stop the funding of our database,” Anne Northup, commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, told a Senate panel earlier this year.

But advocates of the database say the public nature of this reporting system is a huge victory for consumers, who until now were kept in the dark about safety hazards until a product was recalled. They say the database provides expansive protections for businesses and enables them to post comments side by side with the complaints.

“Now consumers can go on the database, look at a product they already have or something they’re thinking of buying and see if there are concerns about the product,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger. “We firmly believe that sunshine is always good for public policy and safety.”

The group’s analysis shows that 14 percent of reported incidents involved recalled products and 57 percent of those took place after the product was recalled — including one death.

In that case, a 6-month-old boy was asleep and unfastened in his Graco Quatro Stroller (model 7111bkw), according to the database report. His body slid off but his head got caught, face down, between the opening of the stroller tray and the seat bottom. Efforts by the fire department to save him failed. His parents, who bought the stroller at a garage or yard sale in Pennsylvania, had left the baby unattended for 30 to 45 minutes.

In a response posted on the database, Graco said the fact that the baby was not fastened and was left unattended was “contrary to specific warnings provided on the product itself and in the instruction manual.” The accident could have been avoided, Graco said.

In that case, the parents said they did not know the stroller had been recalled. The group’s analysis found that only one complaint it examined indicated that the consumer knew they were using a recalled product. In many cases, the consumers said they only learned of the recall after encountering a problem.

Consumer groups say reaching out to consumers after a product is recalled remains tricky. Starting in June 2010, makers of durable infant products such as cribs and strollers began including postage-paid cards that consumers could use to request that manufacturers notify them in event of a recall. The government has required car-seat makers to include similar cards for years with their products.

However, a 10 to 20 percent return rate on any recall for children’s products is considered good, and that’s not good enough, Cowles said. Her group recommends that the database integrate recall information on the site so that consumers are made immediately aware if an incident involves a recalled product.

Consumers who file a complaint must provide their names and contact information to the commission. The person’s complaint is then shared with the company, which has 10 days to investigate and respond. Anything materially inaccurate or confidential is scrubbed from the complaint before it’s made public, said Scott Wolfson, the commission’s spokesman.

As of late September, the commission had received 383 material inaccuracy claims from companies and 204 of them involved a consumer naming the wrong company in their complaint, Wolfson said. “That’s an easy issue to address,” he said. “We don’t put it up at that point. We find out what the [correct] company is and put the right report up.”

The General Accountability Office, at the request of Congress, is expected to release a study later this month that in part assesses the database’s accuracy.

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