Antidote Sought for Recall Fatigue

Jul 09, 2010

By Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

In a world where people resent
being told what to do and buy, many now apparently resent being told to return
items purchased that have been found to be flawed. Persuading the public to
act on product recalls has become increasingly fraught as the number of recalls
increases, according to a report in The Washington

Companies instigating food recalls just for the month of June included
Kellogg’s and Campbell. In addition, seven companies recalled
two million cribs.

Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection at
the Food and Drug Administration, is concerned because numbers are "steadily
going up, and it’s difficult for us to get the word out without over-saturating

"The national recall system that’s in place now just doesn’t work," Craig
Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco,
told the Post. "We call it the Chicken Little syndrome. If you
keep shouting at the wind — ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ — people
literally become immune to the message."

Indeed, the newspaper pointed
to a recent study found that 12 percent of Americans who knew they had recalled
food at home ate it anyway.

Mr. Wilson believes retailers can do the job most
efficiently. Using membership details, they can trace each and every purchaser
of any recalled item. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of Toyota owners, traced
through their registration details, brought their cars in for adjustments.

the message across is made more difficult by a combination of people believing
"it can’t happen to me" and frustration at being
told what to do. Reaching the public, and convincing them to act, is a challenge
being met by government with the website,
email alerts and, most recently, a smartphone application so recalls could
be checked while shopping.

Mr. Wilson believes the federal government should
follow Costco’s lead,
requiring all merchants to follow a similar model, "provided customer
data are used only for safety recalls." To an extent, this is being instituted
by a new federal law. Manufacturers of "durable toddler and baby items
— cribs, high chairs and bathtubs, among them" must now include registration
cards with those products. Previously, only manufacturers of child car seats
were required to provide them.

Even with registrations and the ability to track
purchases through credit and loyalty cards, it isn’t always possible
to reach everyone. Insistence on even more product registration could cause
more resentment.

Discussion Questions: What can be done to minimize risks associated with consumers
tuning out recall messages? What private or public entity or entities are in
the best position to manage recall communications and response?

[Author’s commentary] It’s a sad fact that in an imperfect
world dependent on consumers consuming, an infinite number of unknown unknowns
prevents perfect prevention of problems. Product recall, after the event, is
perpetually inevitable.

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6 Comments on "Antidote Sought for Recall Fatigue"

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Paula Rosenblum
11 years 10 months ago
The P.S. has it right. It is a sad state of affairs when we are debating who has the most responsibility for getting the public’s attention about product recalls. It is also a sad state of affairs when retailers “get good at” executing recalls. The problem is really lousy quality control, and that drives back to inspections by the responsible party. In our last PLM (Private label product in retail) report, we found that retailers are determined to find and keep dependable partners, but far fewer are willing to perform factory audits on product quality or even scorecard vendors in any kind of consistent way. In this kind of environment, problems fester. I still remember the heparin recall of a few years back. The FDA quite clearly said that “While we do have technology to support testing the finished product, we do not have to technology to support auditing recipe ingredients.” Yeah, the faulty ingredient came from China. I find this stunning. So I think the real question should be “How can we insure more… Read more »
Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson
11 years 10 months ago

I am not sure I want the government handling this. I think it is up to the brands and retailers to effectively communicate with their customers.

Gene Detroyer
11 years 10 months ago

All sources should be in play for recalls. The more sources, the more chance of reaching the appropriate users and getting their attention. However, the best message will be a personal message. An email, text or snail mail telling a user they have a problem would rarely get ignored.

Today, this can largely be done. For most products, records exist on who bought them. These records are through the retailer and include membership data, credit card charges, and loyalty programs. Generating this data can be expensive. Communicating could be even more costly. That is solved by chargebacks to the manufacturers.

Ultimately, the only way these recall problems are solved are to make it more costly to the manufacturers to recall than to produce inferior product.

Of course, sometimes the companies are not very good at assessing the cost of risk. BP?

Ed Rosenbaum
11 years 10 months ago
Recall fatigue? That is a good name for the constant barrage of recalls we have experienced over the past few years. Maybe we should take a harder look at the two divergent ends of this spectrum, the manufacturer and the consumer rather than who should take a more prominent role in the recall. The manufacturers seem to have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to product safety and quality control. Maybe this is a byproduct of so many layoffs because of the economy? I do not have that answer. It just appears to be a coincidence that product quality control and recalls are going in opposite directions recently. Remember what happened to Ford products when they finally got the message they were putting out inferior products. They made “Quality #1” the order of the day and improvement happened through the entire manufacturing process. Manufacturing company executives need to address this again and stop taking quality for granted. As for the consumer, yes we have heard so many recalls we are oblivious to… Read more »
John Crossman
John Crossman
11 years 10 months ago

We need more leaders in business and in politics that take personal responsibility and don’t play the blame game. Quick response is needed. In addition, asking for more public involvement will help.

Cathy Briant
Cathy Briant
11 years 10 months ago

The article attributed one of reasons for recall fatigue to people resenting being told what to do. As a consumer, I actually resent having to keep track of all product recalls and having to go through my household to determine if I have anything on those lists. Oh, and remembering those items in order to make sure I don’t buy the product because the retailer hasn’t pulled them from the shelf.

I resent that product safety standards and quality control measures have no teeth. One of my colleagues here suggested that chargebacks to manufacturers could fund recall programs; I’d love to have those penalties used to fund better inspections and investigations.


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