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How Product Recall Notifications Work

Initiating Product Recalls
An example of how product recalls work.
An example of how product recalls work.
Photo courtesy FDA

A product is recalled when it has a safety defect or doesn't meet government standards. Product recalls came about in the mid-1900s because Congress created laws -- the Clean Air Act; the Consumer Products Safety Act; the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act; the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act -- mandating them after years of accidents related to malfunctioning merchandise.

To monitor recalls, the government created a clearinghouse of six agencies charged with overseeing product safety and related recalls. These agencies are:

  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  • Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS)
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)

Manufacturers can implement recalls voluntarily if they discover a defect in one of their products. In that case, they contact the government agency with jurisdiction over the product type they offer and jointly issue a press release about the defect. In other cases, the government agency may receive information about a product and requests that the company recall it. Usually, the company will comply. With the exception of infant formulas, government agencies can't issue a recall. If the company refuses and the agency feels a recall is necessary, the agency can ask the courts to order a recall.

The NHTSA oversees motor vehicles and related equipment, including child safety seats and tires. Its Web site includes recall searches and databases on vehicles, school buses and child safety seats. It also features a booklet answering questions on campaigns and how to file a complaint.

The USDA/FSIS handles the recalls of meat, poultry products and eggs.

The CPSC has jurisdiction over more than 15,000 kinds of consumer products. These include appliances, clothing, electronic/electrical, furniture, household, children's products, lighting/lighters, and outdoor and sports/exercise equipment.

According to the agency, death, injuries and property damage from consumer product incidents costs the nation more than $700 billion annually.

The EPA controls recalls on pesticides, rodenticides, fungicides and vehicle emissions.

The FDA does the recalls on drugs, vaccines, medical devices, biologics, blood and plasma products, veterinary products, food, pet and farm animal feed, and cosmetics. On its Web site, you'll also find recall notices and recall guidelines for manufacturers.

Finally, the USCG oversees recalls of recreational boats, including personal watercraft, as well as boat manufacturer installed equipment.