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O.C. BUSINESS PLUS | HEARD ON THE BEAT / CONSUMERS

Agency Wants to Know Why Pokemon Recall Was So Pokey

January 20, 2000|ROBIN FIELDS | Robin Fields covers consumer issues for The Times. She can be reached at (714) 966-7810 and at robin.fields@latimes.com

Burger King's recall of 25 million Pokemon toys last month drew renewed attention to the persistent problem of making the product recall system faster and more effective.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission accused the fast-food giant of acting irresponsibly, refusing to stop distributing the toys immediately after the suffocation death of a 13-month-old girl in Sonora, Calif. Burger King said it acted as soon as it could sort through initial medical reports on the death and a second incident.

On the calendar, the time lag amounted to little more than a week. But in that week, millions of additional toys moved from retailers to consumers, reducing dramatically the chances that they would ever be retrieved from the market, consumer safety experts say.

Despite the commission's efforts to publicize recalls, return rates remain between 15% and 20%. Consumers often ignore or do not hear about recall notices, the agency says.

Except for major appliances, which come with mail-in warranty cards, the commission has no way to know who owns a recalled product. Consumers often throw out or give away less costly items, making them impossible to track.

The most effective recalls are executed through the commission's fast-track program, in which companies agree to do a recall within 20 days or less. In exchange, the agency does not officially label their products defective, a plus when defending against private product-liability lawsuits.

The 1997 return rate for the fast-track program was 53%, mostly because the commission stopped unsafe products at the manufacturing and retailing levels, said Mary Ellen Fife, general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.

The Consumer Federation has advocated more comprehensive product registration programs, so that consumers would be notified directly of recalls rather than through the media.

A new Internet company, Columbia, Md.-based RegistrationVillage.com, hopes to capitalize on the same idea. Consumers can register for free on the company's Web site, submitting lists of products they own or are interested in. If the products are recalled, the company identifies the registrant personally.

A potential catch: One revenue stream for the Web site is selling information gathered about registrants' purchasing habits, tastes and demographics to manufacturers and marketers. The site offers consumers a way to opt out, however, instructing the company not to resell their data.

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