The vast majority of consumer products in the United States are safe. This is a testament to our infrastructure and the network of governing agencies tasked with making sure everything meets strict criteria (There’s a reason you don’t really worry about a glass of milk making you sick or a lawnmower exploding when you start it up.) Still, no system is perfect, and hundreds of product recalls occur each year, including plenty of toys and baby products that kids and parents might use every day.
The same agencies that promote and enforce the standards that make most consumer products quite safe also handle processes designed to inform the public about dangerous products and remove them from circulation. With the notable exception of car seats, which are regulated by the National Highway Transportation Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the regulator for toys and baby products in the United States.
While product recalls are relatively rare, they still happen, and it’s especially important that parents are aware of how the process works and what they can do to make sure the stuff their kids use is safe. What standards are toys and baby products held to? What, exactly, is a recall? What do you do when a product is recalled? Here’s what parents need to know about product recalls.
What Standards are Toys and Baby Products Required to Meet?
First things first. Every product category has its own set of safety standards that are usually based at least in part on the work of ASTM International (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) an impartial international standards organization headquartered in Pennsylvania. The standards can get very specific.
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Ride-on toys, for example, have dimensional spacing requirements for wheels on the same axis in order to ensure they’re stable. Sound-producing toys can only make noises up to a certain decibel level. A ride-on toy that also makes sounds would be subject to both sets of rules.
Infant nursery products across categories are subject to more than 20 mandatory safety standards, covering everything from lead content to package labelling to product registration practices. That makes them one of the most heavily regulated product categories under the CPSC’s jurisdiction.
Who Makes Sure That Products Have Met Safety Standards?
Companies are responsible for designing their products to meet these standards, but they’re not allowed to be the sole entity evaluating their products. “The 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires children’s products to be tested and certified to applicable safety standards by an independent third party testing lab,” according to Patty Davis, Deputy Director of Communications and Press Secretary for the CPSC. Those labs have to pass through a separate inspection and certification process administered by the CPSC.
The commission also has a presence at the nation’s ports to prevent products manufactured abroad — that have not gone through the same regulatory process — from reaching American consumers. So even though your stroller was probably made overseas, it has to be as safe as one made in the United States.
So, What, Exactly, Is a Product Recall?
A product recall occurs when a company discovers dangerous safety issues or product defects and requests the return of said item. According to the CPSC Recall Handbook, the CPSC uses the term “recall” externally because consumers and media outlets recognize and respond to it. Internally, it’s come to describe any corrective actions — refunds, replacements, repairs — a company takes to remedy a situation in which a potentially dangerous product is being used by consumers.
What Causes a Product Recall?
The most common way recalls are triggered is mandatory reporting from companies.
“Manufacturers, importers, distributors, and/or retailer of consumer products, have a legal obligation under federal law to immediately report (generally within 24 hours) certain information to the CPSC,” says Davis.
There are three categories of mandatory reports: a defective product that could create “a substantial risk of injury to consumers,” a product that creates “an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death,” and a product that doesn’t comply with any “rule, regulation, standard, or ban” enforced by the CPSC.
An injury is not a precondition for this kind of reporting. In other words, companies are required to be proactive and not just reactive to consumer injuries.
There are other special circumstances that trigger a mandatory report: Choking incidents that cause serious injury, products that have been subject to three judgments, settlements in the previous two years, or any other information that indicates has or could contribute to the cause of death or grievous bodily injury.
Companies that fail to report under these rules face steep civil penalties.
How Else Does the CPSC Learn About Defective Products?
The CPSC also runs two projects that proactively gather information on consumer product-related injuries and deaths.
There’s the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which collects data on consumer product-related injuries from emergency room visits. This data is used to provide nationwide estimates of such injuries and is also an important tool in identifying potentially dangerous problematic products.
Then there’s the Medical Examiners and Coroners Alert Project, which gathers timely information from hospitals and coroners, sources that report potential product-related deaths directly to the commission. The CPSC screens every report it receives through this project, and assigns investigative resources when it deems necessary.
And of course, the commission also hears directly from consumers, through a telephone hotline and a form on its website.
What Happens When the CPSC Thinks There Might be a ProductSafety Issue?
The commission has considerable resources to investigate, and none of the reporting protocols above automatically triggers a recall. Staff at the CPSC’s National Product Testing and Evaluation Center complete product safety assessments that, along with other information gathered during the investigation, are reviewed by compliance staff at the commission. It’s up to them to decide if a corrective action, including non-recall options like repairing or destroying unsold stock and halting future production, is warranted.
The CPSC makes a preliminary determination of a “substantial product hazard” and asks the firm to initiate a corrective action plan negotiated behind closed doors by representations of the company and the commission. How the firm reacts determines the kind of recall that will be implemented.
What Are the Main Types of Product Recalls?
There are two kinds of recalls. Mandatory recalls occur when the manufacturer doesn’t comply with the preliminary determination. The CPSC then has to sue to gain judicial approval to implement a mandatory recall.
Mandatory recalls are exceedingly rare — there have only been six in the past 19 years. “It’s a backup mechanism in terms of consumer protection,” Kelly Mariotti, the executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association (JMPA), says. “It’s very, very, very infrequently, and in children’s products, it’s virtually unheard of. Nobody wants a product that, even if it’s being used inappropriately, is out on the market that’s hurting kids. That’s certainly not anybody’s goal or good for anybody.”
Voluntary recalls are far more common. In a voluntary recall, the manufacturer acknowledges the potential safety issue outlined in the preliminary determination. The two parties enter closed-door negotiations to come up with a corrective action plan, which includes both the corrective action(s) a company promises to take and a strategy for notifying the public.
“This is what the recall is going to do, and this is how we’re going to communicate it. Those two parts they will hash out and agree before the actual official notice is presented,” Mariotti says. She describes the process when it reaches this point as generally amicable, as the company has already acknowledged the need for some kind of action and both sides have an incentive to resolve the matter promptly.
What Should Parents Do If a Product They Own Is Being Recalled?
Nearly every recall advises consumers to stop using the product immediately. The next step is to check the CPSC website for the proper recourse, which can vary even within the same category. For instance, owners of a LILLEbaby baby carrier recalled last year received a free replacement baby carrier and a full refund when they contacted the company, while those who used an Osprey carrier that was recalled in 2017 simply received a seat pad insert that made it safe to use.
What Should Parents Do If They Think a Toy or Baby Product They Own Is Unsafe?
The best steps a parent should take if they think a toy or baby product is unsafe is to stop using it and alert the CPSC at the website (SaferProducts.gov) or hotline (800-638-2772) the commission has set up for the purpose.
The commission is eager to hear from consumers, so you shouldn’t hesitate to report a potential issue even if you’re not sure it will be widespread. As with any kind of safety protocol, an abundance of caution is not a bad thing.