Recalling the Meaning of Recall

When the CPSC issues a product recall, we are using the loudest megaphone we have to alert consumers of the need to take action.  Consumers know what the term “recall” means: that recall blog imagethere is a safety problem with a product and there is a responsible party who will correct that problem with a repair, replacement, or refund, the options our statute provides. However lately, we have been redefining the term “recall” to mean something rather different from what all of us understood it to mean.

For example, we have devised the concept of the “recall to warn,” which uses our recall mechanism to get businesses in touch with their customers to provide a warning, possibly  offering a warning label for consumers who wish that. Using the term “recall” is unnecessary to convey the message, and dilutes the word’s strength. But if this usage were not enough of a departure, we have added another flavor to the recall menu: a “recall to inspect.” We recently issued such a “recall” for an infant sleeper regarding mold growth.

Note well: This is not mold that was on the sleepers when they left the factory. Rather, we’ve had reports that the sleeper’s soft base and covering can grow mold if not properly cleaned after getting soiled. The thrust of our “recall” was to ask purchasers to check their products, clean up any mold, and keep the products clean. I don’t necessarily object to alerting consumers to the need for hygiene; I object to our using the recall device to do so.

Recalls suggest a product’s design or manufacture has a problem and consumers need to get the product fixed or return it. This case does not fit those criteria. The risk of mold growing in or around damp cloth is neither unique to this product, nor a flaw.  The “remedy” the consumer was offered through this recall was a reminder to clean the product thoroughly if it gets damp and dirty.  An instruction to clean a soiled product is not a manufacturer-delivered remedy like a return, a refund, or a repair.

This isn’t just semantics. When parents see headlines about recalls of baby products, they worry a manufacturer’s mistake could harm their children. They expect they’ll need to contact the manufacturer for a fix to the mistake—a repair kit, a new unit, or their money back. When consumers see this doesn’t fit their expectations for a recall, they may feel that our warning doesn’t match the label attached to it—that we cried, “Wolf!” At the next recall, they may assume it, too, is just a reminder about good habits and disregard it or file it away as something to check when they get around to it.

I understand and share the desire to make sure this information gets out, but doing so in a way that risks blunting our sharpest tool does not help consumers. If people are unaware of the risk of mold when this or any product is not properly cleaned, maybe we have a role to play in changing that. But that role is not “recalling” a product. Recalls are not warnings, and they are not inspections; they are recalls.

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