The Margin: ‘It takes way too long’: When product recalls are delayed, the results can be deadly, report says
Americans may be at risk for injury or even death because of delays in product recalls being issued, according to a new report from a consumer-watchdog group.
The report, “Safe at Home?” from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, points to numerous instances when the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an independent federal regulatory agency, and manufacturers knew of safety issues with products, but a recall wasn’t issued until months or even years later.
“It takes way too long,” said Teresa Murray, the report’s author, in an interview with MarketWatch.
And the consequences can be serious, the PIRG report makes clear. Murray cites examples of faulty products, from gas ranges to treadmills, that resulted in injuries or property damage. The CPSC and companies were made aware of the problems, but reports continued to pile up before a recall notice went out.
One troubling example cited in the report: Last March, a woman told both the manufacturer and the CPSC of a potentially life-threatening problem concerning her gas range, which was made by ZLINE Kitchen and Bath of Nevada. Specifically, the range emitted too much carbon monoxide, as the woman learned when a detector in her home went off.
There were 43 other complaints filed with the company (and in some cases also with the CPSC) concerning the ZLINE gas ranges, with three of them resulting in people seeking medical attention, according to the PIRG report. But it wasn’t until December that a recall of 28,000 ranges was issued. The PIRG report said that it was fortunate no one died in that interim period.
But that’s not always the case. The PIRG report notes a situation involving Peloton treadmills. Peloton had received complaints going back to December 2018 “involving people and pets being pulled under and entrapped in the rear of the treadmill, with some leading to injuries.”
It wasn’t until March 2021, however, that Peloton alerted the CPSC of the problem — after the company learned of a six-year-old child dying after being entrapped. And even then, it wasn’t until May 2021 that the CPSC issued a recall of about 125,000 Peloton treadmills. In the notice, the CPSC said Peloton had received 72 reports in all about the treadmills, with 29 of those involving injuries to children. The case resulted in Peloton having to pay a $19.1 million civil penalty for failing to act sooner.
Peloton officials didn’t respond to a MarketWatch request for comment. ZLINE officials declined to comment.
Murray stops short of faulting the CPSC for recall delays, saying the recall process is a complex one that often requires the agency to go through several steps, legal and otherwise, and “negotiate” with the manufacturer.
Technically, a company can issue a recall on its own. But recalls are commonly done in conjunction with the CPSC after the agency is notified by the company, consumers or medical and government officials of a potentially hazardous situation with a product.
From there, the CPSC discusses the situation with the company. In some cases, the company agrees to a “fast track” recall that gets the word out to consumers quickly. But in other instances, the process takes time to work itself out — for example, the company may suggest a repair option rather than a recall, which requires the CPSC to do testing. In extreme cases, the company can refuse to do a recall and the CPSC can take it to court as a result, Murray noted.
Murray also said the CPSC suffers from the fact that it doesn’t receive as much government funding as other consumer-focused agencies, such as the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). This is despite the fact that the CPSC is in charge of tracking 15,000 product categories, Murray noted.
And those categories encompass pretty much everything you use in your everyday lives — Murray said it goes from A, as in appliances, to Z, as in zippers. One big exception is autos — that’s the responsibility of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The CPSC did increase the number of recalls it issued last year versus recent years, the report notes. In 2022, it put out 292 recall announcements — the highest figure since 2016 and an increase of 33% over the 219 announcements in 2021.
CPSC commissioner Richard Trumka has stated publicly that his agency can be stymied by the law — specifically, something called the “Gag Rule” that prevents the CPSC from warning the public of problems with products “without first seeking permission from the product’s maker.” Trumka has called for Congress to repeal the rule.
“When CPSC needs to warn the public about a pattern of death and injury tied to a product, it should be able to quickly issue that warning to prevent further loss of life,” he said in a statement last year.
In a statement to MarketWatch, the CPSC also noted that sometimes delays are out of its control if the manufacturer doesn’t alert the agency of the problem initially — a point exemplified by the Peloton case. This is why the agency says it’s especially important for consumers to report such problems via its saferproducts.gov site.
The agency also told MarketWatch that additional government dollars would help it speed up its work.
“More funding to support CPSC’s work would make the process more efficient, faster, and more expansive, which would benefit all consumers,” the agency said in a statement.