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When Recalls Return
Manufacturers, Consumer Advocates Disagree On the Fallout From a Rise of Expanded Recalls

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.

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.

"You messed up," he said referring to Mattel. "Why make it harder for us?"

Mattel doesn't have figures on how many recalled toys consumers have returned, spokeswoman Jules Andres said. But as of Sept. 2, the company had sent out 383,847 prepaid mailing labels.

It may be harder for consumers to know what to do when they are hit with more than one recall notice for the same product, as has happened at least five times in two years.

Simplicity recalled its Nursery-in-a-Box crib in June because the drop-side rails could come loose. That model was among the 11 recalled last week for problems with the drop-side rail. Another model included in the recall, the Aspen 3 in 1, had been recalled before for a different problem. The CPSC is investigating the deaths of at least five infants in Simplicity cribs, agency spokesman Scott Wolfson said.

Several toymakers have also expanded previous recalls. Hasbro recalled about 1 million Easy-Bake Ovens in February after receiving 29 reports of children getting their fingers caught. It initially offered to send consumers a repair kit. Following the recall, the company received 249 reports of children getting their fingers caught, including a 5-year-old who had to get a finger partially amputated, and issued another recall in July. That time, the company offered a voucher for a new toy.

So far, the company has gotten back more than 120,000 ovens, spokesman Wayne Charness said.

Locker of the Toy Industry Association said there's nothing wrong with expanded recalls. Companies initiate them based on new information. In the case of Mega Brands, which Locker has represented, the company expanded the recall when it learned a larger population was at risk.

But to consumer advocates, expanded recalls suggest the initial remedy was inadequate or too few consumers were aware of it.

"The problem with a repair recall, said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, is "the dangerous products are out there unless the consumer takes action."

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