The Definitive Guide to Recalls

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How will I know if an item is recalled?

Recalls are important. They let you know that something you own is in some way not safe. They don’t do you a lot of good, though, if you don’t know about them. The first step toward safety is awareness, and gaining that awareness takes different forms depending on which product you want to keep an eye on.

Finding out about Car Recalls

Cars may be the easiest consumer item for manufacturers to keep tabs on. If your vehicle is registered with the state, you’re easily identifiable as an owner. Manufacturers will send out letters with the words, “SAFETY,” “RECALL,” and “NOTICE,” in all caps, and in a different font from the mailing address information. If you ever receive a letter like this in the mail, do not dismiss it as junk. Immediately open it, and take the steps recommended to remedy the safety issue with your vehicle. Because the state can identify you based on VIN and registration data, you should get this letter even if you are not the original owner. It is important to keep your registration information up to date not only to stay completely legal, but also so you are sure to receive postal notices in the event of a recall. If you want to be more proactive about finding recalls on your vehicle, you can use the Recall Look­Up by VIN tool on the National Highway Traffic Safety Association’s website. When you type in your unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN,) you will be able to see if there are any open recalls on your vehicle, given that the recall has been issued in the past 15 years. Recalls that have been completed on your vehicle will not show up on this search.

Discovering Children’s Item Recalls

Many children’s items, though not all, are regulated in the United States. Companies that produce durable infant or durable toddler products are required to present you with a registration card upon purchase. When you fill out this card and return it, it allows the company to contact you directly should there be a recall in the future. This registration process can also be completed online in many cases.

Items that are currently regulated in this manner include:

  • full­size cribs
  • non­full­size cribs
  • bedside sleepers
  • bassinets
  • cradles
  • bed rails
  • toddler beds
  • play yards
  • soft infant/toddler carriers
  • hand­held carriers
  • frame child carriers
  • infant slings
  • strollers
  • infant bouncers
  • walkers
  • stationary activity centers
  • swings
  • changing tables
  • bath seats
  • infant bathtubs
  • safety gates and other enclosures for children
  • high chairs
  • booster seats
  • hook­on chairs
  • folding chairs made for children

While this list is up­to­date at the time of writing, the most current list of durable infant and toddler products requiring the opportunity for registration can be found here.

Should you purchase or receive any of these products second­hand, you likely will not have access to a paper registration card. In these cases, most manufacturers will allow you to complete the registration product online. There will be a sticker on the product with important manufacturing details such as the date of manufacture and the model name and number that will be required to complete the registration process. The fact that you may one day pass on or sell your items to another parent, or need this vital information yourself, means that you should never remove this sticker.

Food, Pet Food, and Other FDA ­Regulated Products

When it comes to food, whether for the people in your house or your pets, you will need to be more proactive in seeking out recall information. These products are regulated by the FDA (with the exception of meat, poultry and eggs, which are regulated by the USDA). The task of notifying every person that purchased an item in this sector is insurmountable, but the FDA does take measures to make the general public aware. Its most powerful tool has been national media, including major news outlets. In recent years, social media has been added to their arsenal. For recalls that affect most of the general public, you can subscribe to newsletters on recall websites such as DailyRecall.com (insert link to newsletter subscription). If you want to exercise extreme vigilance, you can check the FDA’s website as frequently as will bring you peace.

What should I do when I find out about a recall?

The first step with any product after you discover a recall is to immediately discontinue use. Recalls happen because the product is unsafe, and continuing to use it would put yourself, your family, and/or your pet at risk. Different products will require different correctional paths after you have discontinued use. Read on for industry­specific norms.

Car Recalls

When you receive that recall letter with boldface type all over the front of the envelope, it will include instructions on how the manufacturer plans to rectify the safety issue with your vehicle.

They will provide one of three remedies:

  1. Repair of the vehicle to bring it to safe, working order.
  2. Replacement of the vehicle.
  3. Refund of the vehicle purchase price minus depreciation.

Vehicle manufacturers typically opt for the first option, where they will repair the defective part(s) for free at one of their dealerships. If they make things safe via the repair option, they are not required to replace or refund your car.

Children’s Item Recalls

When a children’s item is recalled, the consumer should call the 1­800 number associated with the recall, or fill out the recall form online if one is provided. From there, the manufacturer will either provide replacement parts, provide a replacement product, or give you a refund. Retailers will also participate in recalls in this sector. When your product is subject to a retailer recall, stores tend to issue a refund. If you have your receipt, retailers will give you your full purchase price back via the method of payment originally used. Sometimes, especially when you do not have the receipt, they will give you store credit. When you lack a receipt, you will only get as much credit as the lowest recorded retail price.

Food and Pet Food Recalls

Whenever human or pet food is recalled, after you discontinue use, the urge to throw the item away can be overwhelming. Don’t cave in to that instinct. you will need the food, and its packaging, to complete the recall process.

Before you do anything else, get all people to the doctor and all pets to the vet, even if there are no apparent symptoms. Take care of your health first, and worry about sorting out the recall later. Nothing is more important than your family’s health.

Get a print out of all diagnoses, and all medical bills. Clean anything the contaminated food has touched. Then, call the 1­800 number associated with the recall itself. In today’s day and age, many businesses also have a landing page now in these instances. They will ask you for information from the bag, such as the product’s specific name, lot number, expiration date and UPC code. This is also a good time to mention any medical or veterinary bills you would like refunded as a part of your recall. The FDA, if not the manufacturer, will likely ask for a sample of the contaminated food for further testing.

(See: How Pet Food Recalls Are Initiated)

Typically when there is a recall of this nature, consumers are refunded in cash for the defective item. Sometimes coupons are offered in lieu of cash.

What are companies required to do when they discover a product is unsafe?

When companies find out their product is unsafe, it’s not enough to just issue a recall. They must take steps to rectify the hazard, and notify consumers that the problem exists.

Cars

When a vehicle has a known safety issue, manufacturers are required to notify owners via the letters discussed above. They sometimes also use phone and email campaigns, though these have proven to be less effective. To fix the problem, they must repair the vehicle, replace the vehicle, or refund the purchase price less depreciation. Refunds are only required to be issued for entire vehicles. They are not required for car equipment. All of this must be done at no cost to the consumer.

Children’s Items

Businesses are required to report safety hazards, or defects that could potentially lead to safety hazards under a number of circumstances. If it is discovered the product is in violation of any safety rules, standards, regulations or bans put in place by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC,) it must be reported. Products also must be reported if there are three or more civil lawsuits concerning death or grievous injury involving the same specific model in a two year period. In the case of toys with small parts, latex balloons, and balls that are less than 1.75” in diameter, companies are required to report when it is known that child choked leading to an interruption of breathing for any period of time, treatment by a medical professional, serious injury, or death. Many companies opt into a voluntary recall when any of the above happen. They work closely with the CPSC to rectify the situation. If they do not issue a recall voluntarily, the CPSC reviews the case, and can compel them to put a notice of recall out to the public. Once the recall is issued, the only legal obligation the company has is to make appropriate efforts to notify the public, and get as many defective products out of homes and stores as possible. The CPSC negotiates with every manufacturer on the behalf of consumers in an attempt to get the consumers a repair kit, replacement item, or refund. However, there is nothing requiring the company to do any of these things. All they have to do is let you know the product is unsafe, and pull as many as possible from the market.

Food and Pet Food

Most FDA recalls are voluntary. In extremely rare cases, the FDA will initiate a recall themselves if the offending business is not being compliant. Much like children’s items, companies are only required to notify the public and get as much product off the shelves and out of homes as possible. Many companies will still refund the purchase price or provide coupons for new product, and some will go as far to pay associated medical or veterinary bills.

What should I do if I’m dissatisfied with what the company offers me?

After a recall, it’s all about reputation management for companies. Companies, especially bigger companies, and manufacturers want to protect their name. They do that by making you happy, and winning back your trust. If you’re not happy with the way they have attempted to resolve the safety issue, ask them for what you want.

For example, maybe you bought contaminated dog food, and now the company is offering you coupons for free product in order to compensate. If you want your money back in cold, hard cash, simply ask them for it.

If you have a baby product that was recalled, and just can’t shake the feeling of malaise, don’t settle for a replacement product that you’re too afraid to use. Ask them for your money back. The worst they can do is say no.

In some cases, businesses say, “no,” even when they should be saying, “yes.” In these cases, you may decide to take a course of legal action.

Should I sue?

When you’ve used a product and consequently experienced medical problems, you’re likely to have medical bills. You’ve probably missed work. In extreme cases, there may have been a death in your family due to the defective product. These are not situations to be taken lightly. If you are attempting to get compensation from a company, but hitting a brick wall, it may be time to enter litigation.

Class Action Lawsuits

The first type of litigation that pops into people’s minds when you talk about lawsuits is class action. Class action lawsuits are often initiated by one person who has been wronged by a company. Their claim may be too small to justify hefty legal fees. When many people have the same problem with the same company, however, their small claims all add up to be quite a large lawsuit. Class action lawsuits are a way for a bunch of Davids to band together and fight an otherwise unconquerable Goliath.

Most people find out they are eligible to join a class action lawsuit when they get a letter or postcard in the mail. First, you get a preliminary notice that lets you know the case is being considered. There has to be enough plaintiffs to file a class action, so lawyers send out notices to people who may be eligible. Just because you receive a postcard does not mean you qualify. If you do, the lawyer is hoping you’ll mail it back saying you’d like to join.

After that, the case will be settled or litigated. This process can take years, and because there are so many plaintiffs, payouts do not often exceed $150. You could get more, depending on the case and how many people participate, but odds are you will get less. At this point you will receive another postcard or email asking you for information for payment distributions.If you opt­out of the lawsuit, you maintain your right to sue. If you participate or actively object to the settlement, you lose that right.

There are many websites that keep current data on cases you can file claims on. If you have a specific case in mind, you can simply use an internet search engine to find it. (Be careful to make sure websites are legitimate before giving away personal information.) If you want to browse cases that are still open to claims, you can check out sites like ClassActionRebates.com or TopClassActions.com. These sites alert users to class action suit eligibility they may not have otherwise been aware of.

Getting a Lawyer

If your claim is significant enough, especially if it’s a medical claim directly related to the company’s hazardous product, opting out of class action suit is in many cases a better path. In these cases, you will want to get your own lawyer. The type of lawyer you hire on will be dependent on your case.

If you were injured, consider seeking out a personal injury lawyer. Many personal injury lawyers worth their weight will not charge you unless a settlement is reached, or they are successful at winning your case in court.

Product liability lawyers are even further specialized, in that they deal with personal injury directly related to a defective product. This subset of lawyers is also worth taking the time to look into because of their specialization.

Whatever you do, do not attempt to litigate or negotiate on your own. Manufacturers and their insurers have claims adjusters who they pay large salaries to negotiate with consumers. They offer what seems like a lot of money to the injured consumer. They offer this number because they know if they went to court, the consumer would get a considerable amount more. Pulling one over on the consumer is their entire job, and they are very good at it. Do not accept any terms without a lawyer, or try to fight a major company on your own. It’s a difficult enough road to hoe with professional litigation. Without it, you are all but sure to miss out on compensation you rightfully deserve.

What should I do if I think a product I own is unsafe, but has not been recalled?

When a product has injured you, made you ill, or done the same to your pet or a member of your family, you should get in touch with the regulating authority for that product. You should do the same when a product has caused a death in your family. Reporting by consumers is how recalls get started. The consumer calls in, and with enough calls, the authorities are able to open investigations. An investigation is the first step to getting unsafe products off the shelves and out of unsuspecting consumers’ homes, preventing further injuries, illnesses, and deaths across the country.

Regulating Authority and Procedures for Vehicles

The regulating authority for vehicles is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. This is also the authority you should report any problems with car seats, tires, or other vehicle equipment to.

To report a complaint, you can file online, get a PDF form emailed to you so you can complete the complaint via snail mail (only available for complaints on motor vehicles,) or call NHTSA’s toll free number. Once they receive a complaint, they remove all personal and identifiable information before adding it to their data base. There is no minimum quota before they look into an issue. They review each and every case seriously, and rely on consumer complaints to know when to compel a manufacturer to recall. You can get the process started here.

Regulating Authority and Procedures for Children’s Items

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) handles recalls for all consumer products, including but not limited to children’s items. There are several ways to file a report for an item that has harmed you or a family member. It’s important to note that the incident does not have to result in injury to be reportable. If there was a potentially harmful occurrence, you can, and arguably should, report it using this same process.

The first option is filling out a report online. This ten minute process can be initiated here. If you prefer to send a physical report in, you have the option to do so via an English or Spanish language form. The final option is calling CPSC’s toll free consumer hotline during business hours.

Regulating Authorities and Procedures for Food and Pet Food

Human food is different in that reporting and recalls are split between two different agencies. Meat, poultry, and eggs are regulated by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS.) All other food products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA.) The FDA handles recalls for a myriad of other items. Additional human products include:

  • Dietary supplements
  • Medication
  • Medical devices
  • Blood, tissue, and cell products
  • Drugs used in gene research
  • Cosmetics
  • Vaccines
  • Tobacco products

The also regulate products for animals. These include:

  • Pet food
  • Pet treats
  • Livestock feed
  • Animal drugs
  • Animal vaccines
  • Flea and tick products
  • Veterinary devices

To File a Complaint About Meat, Eggs, or Poultry

To file a complaint about meat, eggs, or poultry you will have to go through FSIS. This does not just include filling out a form or making a phone call; there are additional procedures you must follow to allow testing and provide evidence. Perhaps the most troublesome part of the process is the very first step: you must retain the original packaging for the product in question. If you’re like most people, and throw the packaging away after removing the meat or eggs for cooking or baking, this may involve fishing through your garbage. It’s not a pleasant step, but one that is necessary if you want to file a complaint and have already thrown the packaging away.

If you found a foreign object in the food, you must keep that, too. The last thing you need to hang onto is any uneaten portion of the food. This may also prove problematic if you didn’t have leftovers, or only realized food poisoning or other illness after you had thrown meal scraps or leftover, uncooked product away. When you’re saving the food, you must freeze or refrigerate it until you give it to the agency for testing.

To file the actual report, you can either fill out a form online, or contact them by phone via the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline. Spanish language natives may prefer the latter option as there are Spanish speaking operators available. If you choose to call, you must have specific information readily available. They will want: your name, address, and phone number; the brand name, manufacturer, and product name; the establishment number (EST) found near the phrase “USDA Inspected;” any can or package codes; the size and package type of the product; the name and location of the store of purchase; and the date of purchase.

If the food made you sick, they will also want information from your doctor regarding your symptoms, when you had them, and the medical professional’s contact information.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Making complaints like this is important, though. Regulating agencies can not recall product is they don’t know there’s a problem, and basic food staples like meat, poultry, and eggs are something most every household consumes. Because of this, you can think of your efforts as a civil service you’re providing to your community, and possibly larger regions throughout the country depending on where the meat or eggs were sold.

If you don’t wish to go through all of the rigamarole, or you can’t complete one of the steps because the information is not retrievable, you also have the option of complaining to the store where you purchased, or lodging a complaint with the manufacturer themselves.

To File a Complaint to the FDA

To file a complaint to the FDA, you will need to get in contact with your district’s FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator. You can find a list of coordinators by states they service here. If your complaint is about human medical products, you have the option of reporting online using the FDA’s MedWatch service.

If you are lodging a complaint about human or pet food, a similar, though not identical, procedure will be followed for both situations. You will still want to keep all packaging, and samples of the food as necessary. However, unlike FSIS complaints, the FDA typically requires that food be unopened in human cases to gather a sample. This seemingly inherent problem is generally mediated by gathering packaging information from your food, and collecting other samples from the same lot.

Some basic rules to follow, whether you’re raising concerns about human or pet food, are as follows:

  • Save all medical information such as testing and results.
  • Have contact information for your doctor or vet readily available.
  • Keep all packaging for the food in question.
  • If possible, keep a sample of the food. This pertains more so to pet food than human food.

In cases of illness or death, the FDA is likely to send an inspector to your house to collect information. This visit is to collect data that could help them further identify the product, and get more details about the problem it presents.

The FDA also handles complaints about all products that fall under their umbrella that are not medically dangerous. These complaints are more about quality control than injury, and help them do their job when they go to inspect plants for meeting protocol. While they do routinely sample product, and inspect production facilities, consumer reporting is a powerful factor in helping them identify products that need to be recalled.

Can I ever trust my brand again?

Recalls are scary. They alert us to hazards in our safest havens: our homes. They do not, however, mean that you should never trust a brand again. The fact that a company or manufacturer issues a recall is an indicator that they truly care about their consumers, and want to keep them safe. This is especially true when they are proactive, and issue the recall before their regulating agency requires them to. Sometimes required recalls are not an indicator of disregard for consumers, but a genuine lack of information on the part of the company. In these cases, the hazard is only illuminated because of complaints the regulating agency has received, and the company readily and willingly facilitates a fix to the problem.

The brands you should watch out for are those who demonstrate a pattern of fighting their regulating agency. If they have a history of defying the CPSC, NHTSA, FDA, or USDA, delaying recalls and keeping American citizens at risk for a longer period of time than necessary, they are likely to be concerned more with their bottom line than the safety of their products.

It would be nice if every single product produced was perfect. Unfortunately, we live in a world full of imperfections. The fact that these agencies exist, and that the vast majority of companies comply with their standards and immediately issue recalls at their recommendations, should bring comfort rather than anxiety to our imperfect world.

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