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When Recalls Return

Barbie Kitty Condo has been recalled by Mattel because of potential lead paint danger.
Barbie Kitty Condo has been recalled by Mattel because of potential lead paint danger. (By Tan Ly -- The Washington Post)

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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The word "recall" often conjures images of emptied shelves and store counters piled high with defective or hazardous items brought in by consumers. But the reality is often quite different as the recent recalls of toys, jewelry and cribs show.

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Last week, Simplicity recalled 1 million cribs because two infants using them died. But the company, based in Reading, Pa., wasn't asking for anyone to return a crib. It had recalled some of the same models before, and in each of the recalls, Simplicity instructed owners to ask for new hardware or instructions and to repair the cribs themselves.

Even when manufacturers issue a recall and say the products should be returned, they often don't get them back. Sometimes customers complain the paperwork is too onerous or the product cost so little, returning it isn't worth the hassle. As a result, even a big-name retailer such as Target can recall hundreds of thousands of play sets and get back fewer than a thousand.

Faced with a recall, many customers simply toss the products in the trash, eliminating the danger. But consumer advocates say another trend suggests companies and the Consumer Product Safety Commission need to do more: the rise of "expanded" recalls.

In the past two years, at least five companies including Simplicity have issued larger or expanded recalls of products that had been recalled before. Such repeat recalls, which usually follow more reports of injuries, rarely happened a decade ago, product safety experts said.

Consumer advocates said the expanded recalls and low return rates are the result of a consumer-protection system that largely relies on companies to report problems and lets them choose whether to repair, replace or refund defective or hazardous products.

Those who represent companies that have had recalls, however, said the system allows businesses to act quickly to remove dangerous products from the market. "Most recalls are voluntary and are reported by the company and implemented by the company. They want to do the right thing," said Frederick Locker, Toy Industry Association general counsel.

It is hard to measure how well the process for recalls serves consumers. Businesses rarely disclose return rates for recalled products. But 19 companies, from small importers to toy giant Mattel, released that information to House Energy subcommittee Chairman Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) who held a hearing on toy safety last week.

Retailer Target reported some of the worst results. It recalled 190,500 Kool Toyz playsets in November for containing lead paint. It offered consumers a full refund but reported 766 returns. The paint on some of the pieces contained as much as 15 times the lead allowed by law.

The company that had the best response was RC2, the Oak Brook, Ill., maker of Thomas & Friends toys. Consumers sent in 590,000 of the 1.5 million toys it recalled in March for potentially containing lead paint, company spokeswoman Nancy Davies said.

One possible factor in RC2's success was the simplicity of its forms. Rather than have consumers look for model numbers or batch codes, the company had pictures of the toys in boxes for consumers to check off. That streamlined a process that consumers can find difficult to follow.

Each manufacturer and retailer sets up its own procedures for consumers to return recalled items. Ron Melancon of Richmond faced a series of hurdles when trying to return two Mattel toys that were recalled in August for potentially containing lead paint. He abandoned his daughter's Dora Fairytale Castle when a Toys R Us clerk wouldn't take it. (Toys R Us has since said it will take any recalled toys even without proof of purchase.) His attempt to return her Diego Talking Field Journal almost ended when he didn't receive a mailing label. At times, he found the instructions confounding.

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