Yvonne Fovargue argues the current product recall system is not fit for purpose. It relies too heavily on consumer action rather than that of the manufacturer. Reform is needed; it’s time for total recall.
When we buy expensive electrical items, such as washing machines and tumble dryers, we often give little thought to safety issues. We might worry about them breaking down or not doing a good job or being expensive to run, but we don’t tend to think of them as being dangerous to our health.
But a series of scandals involving – mostly – white goods have forced us to rethink. Hardly a week goes by without a story in the press about a machine suddenly catching fire, destroying property and putting the lives of whole families at risk.
If this was not bad enough, the typical response of manufacturers has been somewhat relaxed – to say the least. Whirlpool’s advice to those with one of its five million defective dryers, for example, is to carry on as normal, but not to leave the dryer unattended while it’s on. Meanwhile, customers must wait many months – perhaps even years – for a ‘modification’ to correct the fault.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think this is good enough. The correct response would have been immediate ‘total recall’. But what we have is a clear case of putting profits before safety, where wrong – and potentially catastrophic – advice is given in order to save the company the costs of speedy repair.
What is clear is that our laws on product recall are simply not working. The Government knows this, of course, but so far it won’t do much about it. Two years’ ago they commissioned the consumer champion Lynn Faulds Wood to undertake a review, which she duly did, and then they largely ignored the findings and recommendations.
Her report was balanced and modest. She sensibly asked for the setting up of a national product safety agency and a trusted website on which all recalls can be mapped. But, in response, all ministers offered was a steering group to consider the implications, which to most of us looks like a kick into the long grass.
But the current recall system is not fit for purpose and we all know this, including – I suspect – the Government itself. It depends far too much on the consumer rather than the manufacturer taking action, particularly with regard to registering the product and updating details when, for example, the buyer moves house. We all know from experience how easy it is to forget or simply not get around to registering our new product.
I would also like to see an enhanced role for Trading Standards, particularly in bringing consumers and manufacturers together in a more ‘joined-up’ approach and in undertaking more product safety research. Unfortunately Trading Standards has suffered from chronic underfunding in recent years, but we will not make headway unless they are placed at the centre of any solution.
I am not suggesting that there are no good recall systems out there. Clearly some manufacturers take the recall process more seriously, perhaps realising that it does make good sense to look after customers a little. Nor am I suggesting that the problem is confined to ‘white’ or household appliances; the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal demonstrates that it not only the makers of tumble dryers who are tardy when it comes to writing their wrongs.
The Government needs to act now. The steering group, which has not produced one report yet and is due to disband in early November, should be followed by a clear commitment to implement the recommendations of Lynn Faulds Wood’s report, properly backed and resourced. The time has come to out the needs – and lives – of consumers first.