Many recalled, few returned

Times Staff Writer

In August, Mattel Inc. recalled 7.3 million Polly Pocket play sets with small magnets that could come loose and, if swallowed, tear holes in a child’s digestive system.

Hearing that, Lisa Davis didn’t think twice about removing the toys from her 5-year-old daughter’s room and “chucking them in the trash” rather than returning the items for a replacement.

“It’s just not worth my time to go through the hassle,” Davis said. “It’s easier to quietly stick them in the trash when my daughter’s not looking.”


This year, manufacturers and retailers have issued a steady drumbeat of recalls for unsafe items including dolls, baby cribs, lunchboxes and pet food. But despite widespread media attention, companies often get back just a handful of items.

The challenge for officials is determining whether recall announcements are missing their intended targets. And if consumers are simply ignoring instructions, are they throwing out the recalled products or leaving potentially dangerous things in their homes?

The meager returns have spurred safety officials to launch initiatives aimed at getting harmful products out of the public’s hands, including an e-mail program that notifies consumers about recalls. And the House on Tuesday approved a bill -- named after a Chicago toddler who smothered in a portable crib long after its recall -- that would force manufacturers of many children’s products to keep track of who buys them.

“We do a very good job of getting dangerous products off store shelves, but our greater challenge is to get dangerous products out of people’s homes,” said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Last year, Target Corp. recalled 190,500 Kool Toyz, warning parents that the play sets could contain harmful levels of lead and sharp points that could cut their children. But after issuing news releases and posting in-store recall announcements, the Minneapolis-based retailer reported it had recovered just 766 play sets, or less than 1% of the units included in the recall.

In May, Target recalled 5,000 Anima Bamboo Collection Games, cautioning that the paint on the colorful game pieces could pose a lead hazard. None of the units were returned.


“We agree that product safety is an important issue and believe that the solution to ensure safety and possibly increase recall response lies in the best thinking between manufacturers, retailers and the government,” said Target spokeswoman Brie Heath, who did not offer an explanation for the company’s low return rate.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission does not release statistics on the number of products returned by consumers. Reports submitted to a House subcommittee last month by 19 national retailers involved in lead-paint recalls revealed that only small percentages of items were being returned. But there is plenty of evidence to show that leaving unsafe products in circulation can be deadly.

Danny Keysar was 16 months old when he died in a portable crib that had been recalled five years earlier.

The boy’s parents and caretakers at the child-care center where the accident occurred told officials that they hadn’t known about the 1993 recall of Playskool Travel-Lite cribs after three children -- including two from California -- became entrapped and suffocated. After the recall of the cribs, made by Kolcraft Enterprises Inc., at least two other toddlers died.

“It was like a bad dream,” said Danny’s father, Boaz Keysar.

“We’re pretty informed people,” said Keysar, 49, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. “We couldn’t believe that this kind of thing would be allowed to happen.”

Safety advocates say consumers would be better served if the registration required when they buy a car or truck were extended to other products. That way, they would get a letter when an item was recalled. Vehicle recall response rates are among the highest, at about 72% in recent years, said Eric Bolton, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


“The rest of the consumer product system has never set up its own system and hasn’t been required to do so,” said Joan Claybrook, former head of the national traffic safety board and now president of the Public Citizen safety and consumer rights lobbying group in Washington. “The system itself is defective.”

Safety officials rely largely on the media to get out the word, so if a consumer misses the message, “you’re out of luck,” Claybrook said.

Late Tuesday, a product registration bill was passed by the House on a voice vote. The bill, named the Danny Keysar Child Product Safety Notification Act, would require manufacturers of durable infant or toddler products to provide consumers with a postage-paid product registration form and maintain a record of the contact information of registered consumers. The bill will next be considered by the Senate.

“We want to narrowly tailor the notification of recalls to the people who purchased or own the product,” said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission also has stepped up its efforts, launching an e-mail notification initiative last spring. Consumers who sign up for the “Drive to 1 Million” campaign will be e-mailed announcements when a recall is issued.

One reason that recalls get little response may be because consumers are throwing away recalled products, especially inexpensive items.


Tossing an item hampers efforts to track the location of potentially dangerous products and monitor recall effectiveness, officials said. But Davis -- the Polly Pocket trasher -- said that’s asking a lot of busy mothers who don’t want to be inconvenienced for store coupons or credit.

“For a little item, there’s no way it’s worth the effort of loading your kids in the car, standing in line and filling out the form,” said Davis, 40, a Los Angeles architect.

In cases where El Segundo-based Mattel has asked consumers to send products back, the return rate averages about 6%, spokeswoman Jules Andres said Friday. Most recalls, however, involve repairs or replacement parts rather than returning a toy, she said.

Response rates tend to be higher with items that were expensive, purchased recently, made or sold by big-name companies, or subject to substantial media coverage when they were recalled.

In June, toy maker RC2 Corp. recalled 1.5 million Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway toys because of lead paint. Widespread media attention surrounded the recall of the popular toy trains, which cost as much as $40 and had been sold since 2005.

The publicity and name-brand recognition helped the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company recover about 70% of the items by the end of September, Chief Executive Curt Stoelting said.


“Once we determined there was a problem, we moved swiftly,” said Stoelting, who added that RC2 opened a call center, posted recall information on its website and with retailers, and offered consumers a bonus gift with each return.

Consumers should remember that they “have a right to a free remedy” -- usually a refund, repair or replacement -- and throwing away a product negates that, said Wolfson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

But consumers say the remedy often doesn’t feel free.

After hearing about Mattel’s August recall that included her children’s Dora the Explorer, Go Diego Go and Elmo toys, Sandy McGrath visited the toy maker’s website for more information.

The Manhattan Beach banker said she had considered returning the items, but lengthy instructions “looked like a hassle.”

“Is this really worth me getting back my 10 or 15 dollars? No,” said McGrath, 42.

So she and her husband scooped up the toys and tossed them in the trash.



Less than total recall

The issue: Few consumers return recalled products to manufacturers or retailers. Safety officials are worried that the public isn’t getting the message.


What’s happening: The Consumer Product Safety Commission has set up an e-mail notification system for recalls. The House passed a bill that would require manufacturers to provide registration cards for many children’s products. The Senate considers the bill next.

Links: Consumer Product Safety Commission:

Source: Times research