How Product Recall Notifications Work

Pet food has been recalled.
Pet food has been recalled.
Photo courtesy of Dreamstime

Maybe you're a pet owner who feeds and provides care for a beloved animal, or you're a doting grandparent who buys toys and clothes for the grandkids. Perhaps you wear contact lenses or hearing aids, or take prescription medications. Maybe your garage houses a car, truck or sport utility vehicle -- or even a boat. When you purchase any of these things, or something else, you become a consumer.

As a consumer, you may own a product that has been -- or will be -- recalled because of safety issues. Finding out about recalls can be challenging due to the large number of products available and the lack of a consistent method for manufacturers to reach consumers.

In addition, manufacturers may hesitate before recalling products because they don't want to damage their reputation or bottom line. A recall campaign can be costly and, at best, haphazard. Often, companies must run expensive newspaper ads or send out letters. However, there's no guarantee either will reach their target audience.

If a product is defective or dangerous, it's necessary to alert consumers so they can stop using it and receive a replacement or refund. In some cases, a quick response can mean the difference between life and death.

Many government agencies use an electronic notification system to alert consumers about recalled products, from pet food and appliances to eggs and cosmetics. An electronic notification is any automated communication received by e-mail, phone, text message or fax. The government's system sends e-mails to subscribers who wish to receive various recall lists.

In this article, we'll explain how recall notifications work, which agencies handle recalls and how to sign up for recalls on various products.

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.

Learning about Product Recalls

Image courtesy CPSC

So, how does a consumer keep up with all of these product recalls that could be harmful or even fatal? Most people want to know as soon as possible. You can check out a manufacturer's Web site, and sometimes you'll find useful recall information there.

For instance, Ford Motor Co., which manufactures a variety of motor vehicles, has a section of its company Web site dedicated to recall information on its products. The site allows owners to enter their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to determine whether their vehicle has a recalled part. A VIN is a unique 17-character digit composed of numbers and letters found on a metal tag above the instrument panel or in vehicle documentation.

Alternatively, there are Web sites dedicated to consumer protection, such as Consumeraffairs.com that keep updated lists of recall categories. Boat owners may want to check out BoatU.S. for its consumer protection information and recent recalls. Even magazines are getting involved, such as Consumer Reports, which lists recalls on its Web site.

The downside to surfing Web sites is you have to keep returning to them for updated information. In addition, many manufacturers don't post information about their recalls on their Web sites because, well, it just looks bad. That's why the government's electronic notification system is so handy -- you can sign up for all notifications, or you can specify a particular type of recall. Once you've signed up, you'll receive an e-mail asking you to confirm your subscription by replying to the message. Whenever a product manufacturer or a government agency issues a recall, you'll immediately receive an alert. If you want a blanket subscription -- where you get all recall e-mails from the CPSC, FDA or USDA -- go to www.recalls.gov and type your e-mail address in the boxes shown.

To receive specific recalls, you can sign up with specific Web sites. For example, if you're interested in CPSC products, go to their Web site and enter your e-mail address. You'll receive recalls on the same day the agency receives them. You can join one or any number of its lists, including:

  • All recalls
  • Recalls involving infant/child products
  • Recalls involving products used for sports and recreation
  • Recalls involving products used outdoors
  • Recalls involving household products
  • Recalls involving specialty products

Once you've decided, click the subscribe button. Watch for an e-mail in your inbox asking you to confirm your subscription. You can unsubscribe at any time.

The FDA recall list also can be broken down into specifics. Go to the Web site and view the first category, Most Popular/Breaking News. If you want all the recalls for drugs and medical devices, dietary supplements and cosmetics as they're announced to the public, click the subscribe button to the right of the MedWatch listing. If you only want life-threatening recalls on these topics, click on the subscribe button to the right of the FDA Recalls listing. That's all there is to it.

The USDA/FSIS can also send you new information on food recalls. For open federal cases, visit its Web site and click on the envelope with the caption Receive Open Federal Cases Updates by e-mail next to it. When a new window comes up, enter your e-mail address and click the Go button. It will ask you to re-enter and confirm your e-mail address again, as well as choose your delivery preference -- immediately, daily, weekly or monthly. You can add a password, too.

Protecting Your Information

Receive recalls on car parts.
Receive recalls on car parts.
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

The Privacy Act of 1974 requires each of the federal agencies handling product recalls to post their privacy policies explaining its online information practices. In all cases, they must protect your e-mail address.

To read any of the privacy policies, visit their Web sites and type Privacy Policy in the box labeled Search. According to the policies, each agency stores e-mail addresses and doesn't share the information with other agencies. Agencies keep address in a Systems of Records, or SORS, which are either electronic or hard copy files. The particular agency controls these files and retrieves them by a name or personal identifier.

The NHTSA privacy policy states the agency is committed to properly securing the information collected online. The other federal agencies follow the same rules, protecting your e-mail address by:

  • Employing internal access controls to ensure that the only people who see your information are those with a need to do so to perform their official duties
  • Training relevant personnel on the agency's privacy and security measures so employees know what is required for compliance · Physically securing the areas holding the hard copies of the information collected online
  • Backing up (copying computer files to a second medium, such as a disk or tape, as a precaution in case the files get lost or erased) all service request information collected online to insure against loss
  • Using technical controls to secure the information collected online, including but not limited to Secure Socket Layer (SSL), encryption, firewalls and password protection
  • Periodically testing security procedures to ensure personnel and technical compliance
  • Employing external access safeguards to identify and prevent unauthorized attempts of outsiders to cause harm to the stored information.

The government goes to great lengths to guard its information. Still, no system is foolproof, and there's a small chance hackers or spammers could compromise your information. Hackers are people who break into computers over the Internet, while spammers send annoying and repeated junk e-mails. Tampering with a government Web site or its information may be punishable under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 and the National Information Infrastructure Protection Act.

Keep in mind there's no electronic notification system for motor vehicles, child safety seats, tires, recreational boats, personal watercraft, boat manufacturer installed equipment, pesticides, fungicides or vehicle emissions. You'll have to go to the various Web sites and search their databases.

It pays -- with the health and safety of you, and your family and friends at risk -- to stay informed of product recall notifications.

For lots more information on product recall notifications and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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