On a single day earlier this month, the food and pharmaceutical recalls announced in SafetyAlerts' e-mail newsletter were enough to send almost every consumer scurrying to check cupboards and medicine cabinets. Look at these:
* Mrs. Smith's Bakeries recalled 55,788 cases of 12 ready-to-bake desserts and three other desserts because of salmonella contamination.
* Arla Foods recalled nearly 30,000 jars of Mediterra Danish Feta in Oil and Spices contaminated with glass fragments.
* Adams US recalled 1,242 cases of Mountain Menthol and Black Cherry Halls Sugar Free Cough Drops because of possible contamination with metal particles.
* Pfizer recalled 12.6 million trial-size tubes of Listerine Essential Care Gel Toothpaste and Essential Care Tartar Control Gel Toothpaste because the active ingredient methyl salicylate was "subpotent."
That's not all, but you get the idea. Fortunately, some days are slower at www.SafetyAlerts.com, a free, comprehensive and up-to-the-minute recall Web site and e-mail service that delivers potentially life-saving notifications to e-mail in-boxes within 24 hours after a recall is announced. Online, it maintains an easy-to-use database of past recalls, product warnings and other safety features.
"In a typical recall, less than 10 percent of consumers actually get notified and, on average, less than 40 percent of a product is accounted for," says William Knegendorf, president and CEO of Worldwide Alerts Inc. and SafetyAlerts.
Formerly a commercial banker and business consultant, Knegendorf recalls one morning years ago when he heard on the radio about a frozen ground-beef recall because of E. coli contamination. Later, when telling his wife, he couldn't remember the brand name. He watched for it on television, but it wasn't mentioned.
Looking up recalls from the previous two weeks, he was flabbergasted to find how many he had never heard about. His goal at SafetyAlerts is to change that.
"Our mission is to distribute recall and product-hazard information to consumers on a nationwide basis immediately," he says.
SafetyAlerts' Web site gets 10 million hits a month -- up from 2.5 million a year ago. Almost 250,000 people have registered on-site to receive its e-mailed recall notices that, on the average, are sent four out of five days.
"That just reflects the number of recalls -- 1,575 last year," says Knegendorf. "Some of our registrants say they check the Web site multiple times during the day because they don't want to be feeding a child something at lunchtime and find out later it had been recalled."
The e-mail newsletter typically provides a daily dose of summarized alerts of all kinds with links to more in-depth information online. Consumers can customize the e-mail service to match their interests and lifestyles -- choosing from alert categories such as food (contaminants, listeria, salmonella, E. coli, etc.), child-infant (manufacturing flaws in toys, pacifiers, cribs, etc.), general products (appliances, clothing, cosmetics, sports, electronics, etc.) and drugs (warnings about medication errors).
Consumers can also be notified about specific food allergy warnings and automotive recalls, and even have their notices localized.
"People don't want to deal with the five federal regulatory agencies," says Knegendorf. "They don't want to have to monitor EPA and NHTSA and CPSC and the others."
Other recall notification services provide similar information -- but none as immediate and all-encompassing. Many Web sites or services, such as www.babycenter.com and www.WebMED.com, are more narrowly focused. Others report weekly or monthly: Last week, ConsumerReports.org announced the launch of its free e-mail alert service, distributed monthly and whenever there's vital information that requires immediate attention.
By year's end, Knegendorf says SafetyAlerts will increase consumer privacy and security online, eliminate advertising on the Web site and enable users to connect directly with manufacturers.
But the bottom line, he says, remains timeliness and comprehensive reporting of recalls. "Monthly is the standard for recall notification services," says Knegendorf. "Our philosophy is that if it threatens the health and safety of you or a loved one, you need the information now."
Got a consumer complaint? Question? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.