New analysis of UK recalls (full article)

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New analysis reveals scale of recalls in UK has previously been under-represented.

Lack of searchable archive means many traders at risk of legal action

SummaryAn extensive analysis of records of recalls in the UK of unsafe consumer products (excluding food, medicines and vehicles) reveals that for several years the actual frequency of such announcements has been considerably greater than indicated by any single published monitor. This was particularly so for 2007, which now clearly emerges as the record year for recalls in the UK (as it was already known to have been in many other countries). Although there may never be agreement on the total number, it is now reasonable to assume that over 200 product ranges were withdrawn for posing potential  safety risks in that year.

The figures presented here for 2011 are similar to those for 2009 and 2010 – about 160 per year. (One published source suggests higher figures for 2011, but this includes vehicles). The current rate of consumer product recalls is more than 3 times the average numbers for the 1990s and through to 2003. The powers granted to Trading Standards Authorities in 2005 to order recalls are likely to have been responsible - in part - for this increase, although the pattern also partly reflects trends in recalls in the USA.

The major discrepancies revealed between the figures and trends for product recalls in the UK according to different monitoring sources –which this article investigates - offer a poor basis for making policy decisions about product safety measures or judging their effectiveness. The confusion arises because - unlike in the US - there is no single official database of product safety recalls and withdrawals for the UK – and no searchable public archive. It is not just consumers for whom this poses hazards: small importers and retail businesses risk commercial losses at best and prosecution or injury claims at worst if they are offered batches of grey, market goods  that have in fact previously been seized by customs or withdrawn because of  safety issues. Meanwhile, charity shops or pawnbrokers are at risk of unknowingly selling single items that have had been the subject of a recall notice because there is definitive source against which to check the wide range of products they are offered.

Background and sources

In the United Kingdom recalls and consumer safety warnings concerning medicines or medical devices are posted on the website of the central government agency that regulates them - MHRA - while recalls of food or drinks are posted on the FSA website and recalls of motor vehicles can now be searched on the VOSA website. However there is no such  on-line database or archive for recalls of “consumer products” – which is the (potentially confusing) term most often used to cover all the remaining retail goods sectors (including electrical appliances, toys, cosmetics, clothing, furniture, DIY tools and materials, sports equipment, cleaning products, cycles, pushchairs, consumer electronics, jewellery, stationery, luggage, gadgets, decorations, novelties and anything else consumers buy for their home or leisure lives).

Unlike the USA (and some European countries) there has never been a single complete official database listing consumer products that have been recalled from or withdrawn from sale for health or safety concerns. This is partly because enforcement of safety requirements for these products is largely the responsibility of local authorities trading standards officers (rather than a central government agency) and partly that prior to 2006, these authorities had no powers to order a supplier to recall products already sold to consumers – they could only make orders concerning products still in the supply chain (ie have them withdrawn from sale).  Consequently, for many years consumer products could only be recalled from consumers by a retailer, manufacturer, importer or brand owner (though sometimes they might be under a degree of coercion to do so from an authority).

Even with the powers to order product recalls from consumers bestowed by the General Product Safety Regulations of 2005, trading standards authorities have almost always left to the supplier responsibility for announcement of recalls – even ones they had to persuade a supplier to undertake (which meant the recalls remained technically “voluntary”). Additionally, however, the UK authorities were now required to notify the European Commission when enforcement actions resulted in the recall or suspension of supply of a consumer product on safety grounds. Along with notifications from the other member states of the EU (and the wider free trade   area) each such action is published (and archived) on the “RAPEX” pages of the European Commission’s website. Ostensibly, therefore, this public database might be expected to include all UK product recalls and withdrawals. However, comparison with other sources of recall records (for the analysis presented here) showed that in practice RAPEX is far from a complete source of UK product safety recalls.

There are a several reasons why a product recall in the UK action might not be notified to the Commission. These are known to have included (though not necessarily with consistent interpretation of the Directives):

Voluntary recalls undertaken by a supplier without notifying trading standards that a safety issue has been identified (for example the product may technically comply with the mandatory safety requirements, but a batch may have fallen below  the manufacturer’s own higher specifications).

Recalls of products that are known to be on sale only in the UK (and therefore no action is required in any other member state)

Recalls of products that are only in breach of a national UK safety requirement (and therefore can continue to be sold legally in counts as a product recall is open to argument. In the European context, this tends to be used in the strict sense of consumers being advised to return a product (or component) they have purchased (either centrally to the producer or to the retail outlet from which they purchased it) and in return to be given a safe replacement or a cash refund. However in the USA the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has for many years used “recall” to cover any corrective action that involves alerting consumers who have purchased a product with a safety defect. This can often, for example involve the consumer being sent a replacement part or an adhesive warning notice. In the past UK government guidance also adopted this wider interpretation of a recall (DTI URN 99/1172) and for a number of products (eg large white goods) the most cost-effective means of correcting a defect may involve the producers service technicians visiting each customer’s home to adjust or retro-fit a potentially unsafe appliance (whereby success rates as high as 79% have been claimed in some examples- see Abbott & Tyler, 1997). One other potential confusion is that some manufacturers or importers may announce that they are “recalling” products from the market (ie from retailers) while considering the potential hazard does not justify contacting consumers who have already purchased it.

Over the last twenty years several studies or monitors of consumer product recalls in the UK have been published, each covering a different period of years. Until 2004, most recalls were only accessible to consumers transiently - as notices in the press (usually placed as advertisements by the product’s producer or retailer). However since the choice of publication(s) used was up the advertiser, no monitoring study could practically be expected to capture all such recalls (eg if they were confined to a specialist press –such as gardening magazines or to one region of the country). Furthermore, to monitor recalls from newspapers prior to about 2000 required either a very diligent reader or the employment of a cuttings agency. (Similarly, of course, only limited proportion of purchasers could be expected to have read a one-off recall advertisement in the press.)

For the years 1990 – 97 I have relied on data from two previous studies of UK product recalls: by Sambrook Research for DTI and by Simpson for the ITSA College of Fellows. These were based on much the same media sources as are regularly monitored by the Trading Standards Institute (the professional body for local authority Trading Standards staff).  This is the longest running monitor of recall notices published in the UK press. In consequence, a number of UK companies routinely send copies of any recall notices direct to the Institute. TSI publishes details of recall notices it is aware of on its website and in its journal “Consumer Safety Bulletin”. I have used these as one of the sources for recalls for the years 1998 onwards (cross-checked – as explained below - against UK notifications to RAPEX and the short-lived series published on the RoSPA website). 

One other published time series of  figures for UK  product recalls (covering  the years from 2004) is that is that given in press releases  by the commercial  law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain,. However since neither the sources of their data nor details of the individual products were published, it has not been possible to cross-reference this series to other sources.

Methodology 

When it comes to monitoring numbers of recalls a problem arises of whether to count separately each model recalled. It is clear from reading a large number of recall notices and RAPEX entries that the practice varies enormously. Most commonly a notice will cover all the products of one Brand that share the same safety defect, but a few may cover similar products sold under more than one brand name. Usually recalls of toys tend to include all the affected models within one range although they may share only a minor feature (such as paint colours or labelling). Occasionally, however (as occurred in 2007) single recall notices may cover several unrelated ranges of toys with a variety of different defects. Contrarily, separate RAPEX notifications have sometimes been made for two toys in the same range with the same defect because their individual shapes are physically different. 

[It is arguable that a more meaningful measure of recalls would be the numbers of individual items (ie retail packages) that had been sold to consumers, or their value, or even an estimation of the total potential harm – but the necessary information is not usually given in recall notices (at least on this side of the Atlantic).]

In this analysis I have s not attempted to count separately each of the models recalled in each notice, since these figures would not have been comparable with any other published studies. Recalls of food, drink, medical products and road vehicles have been excluded. However RAPEX notifications of unsafe products taken off the market (or seized by customs) in the UK have been included even where there was no specific indication that products were recalled from consumers. (These account for only a proportion of the cases.) 

What is unique about the figures from this analysis is that they are the result of detailed cross-referencing of notices published by the Trading Standards Institute against those published in RAPEX to eliminate duplicates. Surprisingly the number of UK product recalls appearing in both sources is small – no more than 25% in any year.

Results and discussion of figures from different sources

All the time series from the sources investigated  for this study are compared in the chart  below, together with the new estimated total derived here from cross-referencing the details of the products recalled to exclude duplicates (as described above). In consequence, the new estimates for each year since 2005 are at least 50% greater than indicated by either the TSI or RAPEX sources on their own.

  

An obvious question, however, is whether these new figures can be regarded as absolute totals or whether there are yet more consumer product recalls in the UK that are not being captured in either of these sources. The totals for 2010 and 2011 published by RPC do suggest that there are more - although it is just possible that the difference is accounted for by recalls of vehicles, which RPC include in their “consumer products” category. Figures for the totals and trends in UK recalls in which we can truly have confidence will only emerge if it is possible to make a detailed cross-check between individual cases identified by RPC against those in RAPEX and the TSI monitor.

What is clear from the chart above, however, is that no one source has consistently recorded all recalls and therefore none on its own correctly represents the trends in UK recalls over time – which is a poor basis for informing the policies of enforcement authorities, trade association or consumer bodies. 

Features and possible causes of the trends

One reason for placing more confidence in the new estimates presented here than any individual source is that 2007 clearly emerges as the record year for recalls in the UK. (Although it was already known to have been in the USA – see below – this is not reflected in time series published by RPC, or in the UK RAPEX notifications.) One of the main contributions to 2007 peak was the large range of toys recalled (worldwide) by Mattel (and some other major producers). Many of those notices included several ranges of quite different toys – a far greater variety than were grouped together in recall notices in more normal years. The peak based on numbers of recall notices should therefore be regarded as an underestimate of recalls (in comparison with other years). A more realistic estimate would now be that there were over 200 product recalls or withdrawals in the UK in 2007 (as suggested in the chart above).

The subsequent dip in recorded recalls in 2008 may have been a reaction to the greater focus on product safety concerns following the press coverage in 2007 – and/or it may have been a consequence of the financial recession.

The new figures presented here for 2011 are similar to those for 2009 and 2010 – about 160 per year. The combined total (with duplicates eliminated) is more stable than the figures from either the UK RAPEX notifications or the Trading Standards monitoring alone.

The current annual rate emerges as more than 3 times the average for the 1990s and through to 2003. This so far permanent step change may in part have been a consequence of UK Trading Standards authorities acquiring powers to order product recalls from 2006. [Most other member States enforcement authorities had these powers earlier - under the 2001 Directive – and this may have had a knock-on effect on the number of ‘voluntary’ recalls in the UK.] However, as the chart below shows, the general pattern of rises and falls in product recalls in the UK has been  very similar to that experienced in the USA,  which would suggest  that giving Trading Standards powers to order recalls was less influential than the general pattern of defects being found in consumer products on the world’s markets. On the other hand, it should be noted that between 2000 and 2003 the number of recalls in the US was almost 5 times that in the UK, but since 2006 the average has been just 2.5 times the UK’s rate. This relative increase suggests that the UK enforcement authorities’ added legal powers probably have contributed to persuading companies to agree to voluntary recalls. [Like in the UK practically all consumer product safety recalls undertaken in the US are technically voluntary, though they follow consultations with the CPSC or other relevant enforcement authority.]

It is reasonable to ask whether the number of recalls in the US should be higher than that in the UK at all. Obviously the volume of sales of products is greater in the US (by at least the ratio of the size of the populations) but the number of recall notices should be expected to be related only to any greater range of different models available to US consumers compared to those in the UK (and/or to any higher incidence of defects or of their detection or to the readiness the enforcement authorities to insist on suppliers declaring a recall).  

Two well-publicised examples illustrate some of the differences in approach that may be taken to identical products with identical hazards by the authorities on either side of the Atlantic (as well as the difficulty in defining what counts as a safety recall or withdrawal.

a) In 2009, CPSC announced a recall in the US of Maclaren buggies/pushchairs following reports of some children trapping fingers in the hinges while a parent was unfolding the buggy. The recall advised owners to contact Maclaren who would send them a ‘retro-fit kit’ comprising textile covers for each hinge. Meanwhile, the company’s home trading standards authority did not consider the small number of injuries complaint received by Maclaren in the UK necessitated them taking enforcement action. However because Maclaren was a UK company, the US recall made headlines in many UK news media, who (together by the Government’s Consumer Focus agency called  on the company to announce (voluntarily) a similar recall to customers in their home market. The coverage also brought to light dozens of previously unreported injuries to UK children. Maclaren eventually agreed to provide the retro-fit covers to any UK owners who requested them, but never referred to this a recall (arguing that in the UK this would mean they were advising return of the products to the suppliers). Moreover, they never placed any newspaper announcements (which were arguably un-necessary since most papers were covering the story in news columns) the information could only be found on Maclaren’s website and Facebook page. Consequently, one of the product safety ‘alerts’ most widely reported in the UK press in recent years was not recorded in RAPEX or as a recall on the TSI website – and is consequently an omission from the numbers in this analysis.

b)   In 2003, the UK (together with other EU member states and Canada) banned sales of  “Yo-ball” toys (a few months after they flooded onto the world market) following reports of their  rubber cords  wrapping round children’s necks restricting breathing and being difficult for the child to remove. CPSC also investigated this product (having received nearly 200 complaints in six months). They determined the risk posed was not substantial enough to warrant a generic ban or recall. CPSC did however issue a public warning advising parents to throw these toys away, and within a year reports of incidents involving these products in the US had largely disappeared (as with many other short-lived toy crazes). Nevertheless, this alert is not counted in the US recall figures.

Are Chinese imports to blame?

Analyses of recalls in recent years in the US and across Europe have consistently shown over half of these products were manufactured in China (around 90% in the toy sector) and the general picture is similar in the UK. However, this largely reflects the seismic shift in production of consumer goods for the developed world to the developing world. A detailed study of the toy sector in the US (Allen et al, 2008) suggests that up to 2006 the number of toy recalls per year showed no consistent trend despite a six-fold increase in imports of Chinese toys. It also suggested that most the escalation in 2007 was associated with the single issue of lead content.

Neither should it be assumed that there were fewer products with safety defects on the UK market before the switch to Chinese production factories. Although recalls of products from consumers were less common, there is some evidence to suggest that withdrawals of unsafe products from the market under pressure from trading standards were far more frequent. Between 1988 and 1993 (the only period for which these figures were published*) on average over 200  consumer products a year were ‘voluntarily’ withdrawn from sale -  in return for trading standards dropping prosecutions against suppliers while  an additional 41 suppliers were served with suspension notices –actions that today would be expected to be reported in RAPEX. The overall number of enforced withdrawals from the UK market in the late 1980s/early 1990s was thus routinely exceeding the 2007 peak figure for both recalls and withdrawals combined. [*in the Consumer Safety Report of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for 1988-93.]

Risks of lack of a searchable database of UK recalls

If the UK authorities cannot keep track of all products currently subject to recall or withdrawal in the UK in a single database then it is unlikely that the messages can be relied on to be read by every consumer who already owns a recalled product or every retail businesses that might be offered batches of similar products. This was less of a problem when one or two wholesalers handled all UK imports from one manufacturer, but now output of one production line may be imported through a number of routes under a range of brand names.

Without an easy to search public archive it is even harder to prevent recalled products from being traded (unwittingly) on the growing grey and second-hand markets.  Equipment hire companies, pawnbrokers, charity shops, on-line auction and car-boot sale traders each buy and sell a wide range of consumer products singly or in small batches, a proportion of which may have been the subject of recall or withdrawal notices either recently or several years ago. While second-hand products are not required to meet current standards, traders could be prosecuted for offering products that are manifestly defective in safety (eg by the standards when they were produced or the manufactures own specification). Products subject to a recall notice would be likely to be judged unsafe and failure to have been aware of such a notice could undermine a trader’s defence of due diligence, despite the onerousness of the task of continually checking each of the potential sources.

In the absence of a publicly accessible official monitoring database for the UK, Consumer Risk Limited can offer ad hoc searches for published recalls of any particular type of consumer product using our own archives and the most up to date on-line sources. This service is aimed at the occasional needs small businesses and solicitors.

Conclusions

This detailed analysis of sources of consumer product recalls in the UK since 1990 has revealed that in recent years the scale of the problem was considerably greater than any previously published figures. This is particularly so for 2007, which clearly emerged as the record year for recalls in the UK (mainly due to world-wide mass recalls of toys by multi-national brand names). Although there is no standard for how many product models should be counted as one recall, for a realistic comparison with reports in previous and later years it is now reasonable to assume that over 200 product ranges were recalled or withdrawn in the UK for posing potential safety risks in 2007.

The figures from this analysis for 2011 are similar to those for 2009 and 2010 – about 160 per year ,  which is  more than 3 times the average for the 1990s and through to 2003. Peaks and troughs in the UK trends coincide with to those in the USA which suggests that UK recalls are influenced by increased safety defects (or their detection) on the worldwide market. However the analysis suggests that the UK enforcement authorities’ acquisition (from 2006) of powers to order product recalls also had a substantial influence on the numbers (even though almost all recalls remained technically voluntary actions by suppliers).

Although more of the recalled or withdrawn products were from China than anywhere else, this may be no more than a reflection of the massive shift of production of many consumer goods to Chinese factories by UK and multi-national consumer brand names over the last two decades.

In the UK there has never been a single complete public database listing consumer products that have been recalled from or withdrawn from sale because of health or safety concerns. This contrasts with the situation in the USA where even voluntary recalls and warnings by product suppliers have to be announced in co-operation with the national enforcement authority (CPSC) and are all freely available to view on its website.

What the present analysis shows conclusively is that none of the previously published figures based on a source has consistently recorded all recalls and therefore none on its own has correctly represented the trends in UK recalls over time.  At least one published source suggests that an increasing number of consumer product recalls in the UK are not being captured on any of the public websites. The figures presented here for 2008 onwards should therefore be treated as conservative estimates. Totals and trends in UK recalls in which there can be real confidence will only be emerge if it is possible to make a detailed cross-check between individual cases identified in each of the sources of published statistics.

The resources currently available provide poor basis for informing the policies of UK enforcement authorities, trade associations or consumer bodies.  Moreover it poses a potential risk of civil or criminal liability for traders such as equipment hire companies, pawnbrokers, charity shops, on-line auction and car-boot sale traders, each of whom supply a wide range of consumer products singly or in small batches from the growing grey and second-hand markets. Furthermore consumers may either be put off buying products from these cheaper sources if they cannot check product against a reliable database of recalls.  Alternatively, they may be put at risk of injury by buying products that (they cannot know) have been withdrawn or recalled by their producers because of recognised safety defects. The current situation thus hampers rational buying decisions and increases the unnecessary disposal as waste of products that could offer many years of safe use, while simultaneously it also risking avoidable harm to owners of some products.  

References

Date ranges and sources of UK consumer product recalls investigated for this study:

1990-96: Sambrook Research Intnl 2000 : “Product Recall Research” – Dept of Trade & Industry report URN 99/1255

1994-97: Simpson I,  1998: “Product Safety Recalls – Proposals for practical improvement” – College of Fellows Research Report, Institute of Trading Standards Administration

1998-2011:  Trading Standards Institute:  www.tradingstandards.gov.uk/advice/advice-recall-list.cfm ; and Consumer Safety Bulletin (published monthly)

1999-2002: Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents website (pages no longer available)

2004-11: RAPEX website http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/dyna/rapex/rapex_archives_en.cfm (also available from Consumer Focus website:  http://recalledproducts.org/country/united-kingdom)

2004-2011: Reynolds Porter Chamberlain website: www.rpc.co.ukUK Government recall websites for medical products, food and vehicles http://www.mhra.gov.uk/Safetyinformation/Safetywarningsalertsandrecalls/index.htmhttp://food.gov.uk/enforcement/alerts/http://www.dft.gov.uk/vosa/apps/recalls/default.asp?tx=VOSA

Other references in the text:

Abbott H & Tyler M, 1987 “Safer by Design” 2nd Edn – Gower, London pages 184-190

Allen LP et al, 2008 “China Product Recalls: what’s at stake and what’s next” – National Economic Research Associates Inc, USA -  nera.com

Consumer Safety Report of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for 1988-93 – HMSO London

Dept of Trade & Industry, 1999 “Consumer Product Recall – a good practice guide”- URN 99/1172 

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Consumer Risk Limited

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 07 March 2012 11:10 )  

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