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April 25, 2022  |  Education

Product recalls 101

Everything you need to know about product recalls

If you’re an adult, at some point in your life, you’ve probably received a product recall notice. If you have, hopefully, you paid close attention to it and acted on it immediately, because a product recall isn’t a suggestion, it’s a warning. In many instances, that warning may be as dire as “if you keep using this product, your life is at risk.”

Still, people tend to think of recalls as something that can be done whenever they get around to it. This is not the case. Anything from a child’s toy to a gas grill can be recalled. The next time your child plays with that toy or the next time you ignite that gas grill, you could learn firsthand why the product was recalled.

To understand why a product recall is so important, it helps to learn the steps involved in the product recall process. These steps include what it takes to get a product recalled, who issues the recall, what you need to do once a product recall has been issued, and more.

What is a product recall? 

When a company obtains information that one of its products could cause temporary illness, serious injury, or death, it must notify the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission immediately. The CPSC evaluates the report to determine if action needs to be taken. If action is required, the company must fix the problem using one of four methods: repairing the product, replacing the product, offering a refund, or repurchasing the product. This is called a product recall and it’s performed at no charge to the consumer.

Alternatively, a company’s product must be reported if it fails to comply with a rule, regulation, standard, or ban that’s recognized by the CPSC. When this happens, even if there has been no associated illness, injury, or death, the CPSC may determine that action still must be taken.

It’s important to note that the CPSC uses many sources other than company reports to initiate a recall evaluation. However, since companies are often the first contact when problems with a product arise, this is the most efficient way for the CPSC to learn about a problem.

What types of companies have an obligation to monitor and report product issues? 

In the U.S., there are many types of companies that aren’t simply encouraged to report safety issues and violations, they have a legal obligation to do so, and they must report them in a timely manner — within 24 hours. If a company is late to report a safety issue or fails to comply at all, it can result in fines of over $15 million. The types of companies that have this obligation are manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retailers of consumer products.

What is the CPSC?

The CPSC was established by the Consumer Product Safety Act in 1972. It’s an independent regulatory agency responsible for protecting the public from unreasonable risks associated with consumer products. The CPSC has jurisdiction over products used in the home, in schools, in recreation, and in other consumer situations.

What other organizations issue product recalls?

While the CPSC handles recalls for the majority of products used by consumers, there are several other organizations that handle more specific product recall needs.

Food Safety and Inspection Service

The FSIS, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, is responsible for guarding the public’s health and safety by ensuring that all meat, poultry, and egg products are safe. These food items may be recalled if they’re deemed unfit for human consumption. Additionally, meat, poultry, and/or egg products that are sold or shipped with misleading labels or packaging are subject to product recalls.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The FDA has a broader scope of coverage than the FSIS. This organization protects the public by monitoring human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, cosmetics, food supply (including fruits and vegetables), and products that emit radiation. If any of these items are deemed to be defective, violate a law or regulation, or cause harm to people, a recall is triggered.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

When an issue involves an automobile or a product that’s essential to passenger or vehicle safety, the organization responsible for a recall is the NHTSA. The NHTSA will issue a recall if a vehicle or any component is deemed capable of causing harm or putting a person in danger or at risk of injury for any reason.

U.S. Coast Guard

If a boat or boating equipment violates a federal safety regulation or has a defect that creates a substantial risk of injury, the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for issuing those recalls.

Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is another government agency that can issue recalls regarding vehicles, engines, and other equipment. The EPA’s primary focus is on engines that don’t comply with the Clean Air Act.

Do I have to wait for a product recall notice?

Manufacturers, retailers, store chains, government agencies, and news services all work together to make sure product recall information gets to the public in a timely manner. In many cases, companies are also required to reach out to known purchasers of the product. However, as good of a job as these entities do, it’s entirely possible for you to miss a recall notice. To keep yourself and your family safe, consider being proactive. If any product you own, use, or consume seems less than what it should be, you can do a quick search to determine if there was ever a recall notice issued.

The catch-all website is Recalls.gov. You can visit this site to learn about consumer products, motor vehicles, boats, food, medicine, cosmetics, and environmental products. At the site, you can sign up for email alerts to stay in the know. Additionally, you can visit the CPSC, FSIS, FDA, NHTSA, U.S. Coast Guard, and EPA sites for information on recalls. Manufacturers and retailers also maintain a product recall list that you can search.

What happens after a product has been recalled?

After product complaints have been investigated and the product is recalled, a federal agency works with the company on a corrective plan of action to rectify the problem that triggered the recall investigation. In the interim, the company cannot sell the product undergoing a recall. Further, the responsible party must provide a safe resolution to the problem at no charge to the consumer. This may involve a repair, a replacement, a refund, or a repurchase of the recalled item.

Once the safety issue has been resolved, a product can be sold again under the same name and model. 

What happens to a recalled product?

Once a product has been recalled, there are three things that can happen to that product. The product may be repaired, recycled, or destroyed.

Repaired

If a recalled product can be repaired so it can be safely used again, that’s often the most desirable option for a company, especially for big-ticket items such as automobiles, washing machines, or refrigerators.

Recycled

In the event that a faulty product can’t be repaired so it operates safely, the company may choose to dismantle the product and reuse the parts that have no defects or recycle any materials that can be properly recycled. For example, many tech companies use this approach for smartphones or tablets.

Destroyed

If a recalled product is toxic or dangerous and can’t be safely repaired or recycled, the manufacturer may be required to destroy it.

Voluntary vs. mandatory recalls

When a company receives a report that its product isn’t safe, the typical course of action is to issue a voluntary recall. This is a good faith option that allows the federal agency and the company to work together to reach a mutually acceptable solution that’s safe for the American people.

Unfortunately, there are times when the company and the federal agency don’t see eye to eye. When this happens, a company may refuse to issue a voluntary recall. This forces the federal agency to take legal action, which results in lengthy and costly legal battles that can further tarnish the company’s reputation. At this point, the federal agency has the power to mandate a product recall.

FAQ

Q. How does a company monitor for potential product issues?

A. Since a retailer, manufacturer, or other consumer-based company is more likely to receive complaints about its products directly from the user, a team should be assembled that gathers and evaluates this information. The data obtained may be from customer complaints, warranty returns, insurance claims, product liability lawsuits, and more. This way, the company can quickly flag any issues that need to be reported.

Q. What types of products are recalled? 

A. Anything from food to automobiles to consumer products can be recalled. High-profile recalls tend to be in the food and auto industries, but hundreds of consumer products are recalled every year, too. 

Q. Do recalls only involve repairs?

A. A recall may involve a repair, though it’s just as likely to be resolved via a return, an exchange, or replacement of the product.

Q. Are there conditions to a recall? 

A. Sometimes, there are conditions to a recall. These conditions won’t involve a cost to the consumer and they’re for safety reasons only. For example, you may need to show proof of the disabling of a home appliance, such as a dehumidifier, in order to receive a replacement. This is so the consumer is unable to continue using the faulty product.

Q. Can I sell a recalled product on a secondhand marketplace like Craigslist or OfferUp? 

A. No. According to the CPSC, it’s illegal to sell any recalled products via secondhand means. 

Q. Do product recalls have an expiration date? 

A. No. Even years after the recall was announced, there is recourse available to seek a replacement, according to the CPSC. A recall also transfers along with ownership. Even so, it’s recommended to act on a product recall as soon as possible, as companies are better equipped to handle customer refunds and repairs closer to the original recall date. For cars, the statute of limitations is eight years for a no-charge recall, according to the NHTSA. 

Q. Do product recalls cost the consumer money?

A. No. The law requires the company to bear the full burden of all product recall costs.  

Q. What type of impact do recalls have on a company?

A. Even though product issues that lead to a recall aren’t intentional, they can severely damage a company’s reputation. A product recall may cause the manufacturer’s consumer base to lose faith in the product. Product recalls also tend to involve lawsuits. A smaller company might not be able to recover from a damaging recall.

Q. How do I report potentially unsafe products? 

A. SaferProducts.gov provides resources for reporting and researching potentially unsafe products. 

Q. Can I sue if I’m injured after a product has been recalled?

A. This must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis — just because a recall was issued, it doesn’t absolve a company of all liability. There are many aspects that must be considered, such as how the company handled the recall and if the notice was ignored by the consumer.

Q. Can I choose to ignore a recall?

A. There are many recalls where it’s impossible to document the consumer’s action. You won’t be forced to partake in a recall process, but it must be very clear that choosing to do this puts the life of anyone who uses the defective product at great risk. A recall is issued because it has already been proven that the product is not safe to use. If you’re injured and you willfully ignored a recall, you may forfeit your ability to be compensated due to negligence.

Q. What happens if I miss a recall notice?

A. If you’re injured by a product that was recalled, you may be able to seek compensation. The key to this resides in proving if the company did all it could do to notify you of the recall. If you can prove the company didn’t do enough to notify you, you may have a case. However, the company will argue that you, the consumer, were negligent. If it can be proven that you received fair and adequate notice but took no action, you may be held liable for damages and court costs. 

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Allen Foster writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.