National

Recalls so usual, we tune out

McDonald's asked customers to return 12 million glasses emblazoned with the character Shrek. Kellogg's warned consumers to stop eating 28 million boxes of Froot Loops and other cereals. Campbell's Soup asked the public to return 15 million pounds of Spaghetti-Os, and seven companies recalled 2 million cribs.

That was just a fraction of the products recalled in the United States last month alone.

Government regulators, retailers, manufacturers and consumer experts are concerned that recall notices have become so frequent across a range of goods — foods, consumer products, cars — that the public is suffering from "recall fatigue."

In many cases, people simply ignore urgent calls to destroy or return defective goods. One recent study found that 12 percent of Americans who knew they had recalled food at home ate it anyway.

Hasbro recalled the iconic Easy Bake Oven in 2007 because the fingers of two dozen children had gotten stuck in the door, and the toymaker received 249 more reports of injuries over the following six months. One 5-year-old girl was so seriously burned that doctors had to partially amputate a finger.

"It's a real issue," said Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration, who said even his wife has complained about the difficulty of keeping pace with recalls. "That number is steadily going up, and it's difficult for us to get the word out without oversaturating consumers."

The problem is twofold: Some people never learn that a product they own has been recalled, and others know they have a recalled product but don't think anything bad will happen.

"The national recall system that's in place now just doesn't work," said Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco. "We call it the Chicken Little syndrome. If you keep shouting at the wind —'The sky is falling! The sky is falling!' — people literally become immune to the message."

The government maintains a website, www.recalls.gov, offering information about all kinds of recalls, and consumers can subscribe for e-mail alerts about specific products. On Friday, federal officials planned to roll out a smartphone application so consumers can check recalls as they shop.

But it amounts to overload, said William Hallman, professor of human ecology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

"There is so much information out there, if you paid attention to every recall notice that came out every day, you'd go nuts," said Hallman, who has studied consumer attitudes toward food recalls with a grant partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He conducted a national survey last year in which 12 percent of respondents said they knowingly had eaten a recalled food.

Any recall has two targets: retailers and consumers. Government regulators say most stores can quickly pull defective products from shelves and block their sale at the cash register. The tougher battle is getting the consumer to act.

"We do a good job of getting dangerous products off store shelves, but we do believe the greatest challenge is getting dangerous products out of the homes," said Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversaw 465 product recalls in 2009 involving tens of millions of items ranging from circular saws to Jesus Fish Beads.

If a product is relatively expensive, consumers are more likely to return it for a replacement or a repair. They're also more likely to act if they perceive an immediate threat to their health or safety.

Car owners are among the most responsive, returning 73 percent of recalled autos and 45 percent of recalled child car seats in 2009, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Meanwhile, consumers return about 30 percent of everyday consumer goods when they are recalled, said Marc Schoem, the top recall official at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In cases involving a costly appliance, or a product where a defect could be lethal, such as scuba diving equipment, about 60 percent of consumers return the product, he said.

When it comes to food recalls, the government doesn't estimate the average return rate for products.

The best way to prod consumers to respond to recalls is for manufacturers to notify them directly, experts say.

Reaching consumers directly is the idea behind a federal law that took effect last week. It requires manufacturers of durable toddler and baby items — cribs, high chairs and bathtubs, among them — to include registration cards with those products. Before, only manufacturers of child car seats were required to provide those cards.

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