Yanked off the shelf

Are companies working hard enough to recall faulty products?

Shane Osborne is about ready to throw in the dish towel.

The Kensington, Md., marketer's GE dishwasher was recalled last month, after 50 of the aging appliances caught fire.

But instead of fixing the wiring problem, Mr. Osborne says, the company offered a sliding scale of rebates to buy a replacement washer - $125 for a top-of-the-line GE profile performance washer down to $25 if he bought a competing brand. "Twenty-five dollars won't even cover the cost of installation," says Osborne, who believes the company is using the recall to sell more dishwashers.

He points out that the company sent rewiring instructions to its large-scale customers so they could dismantle the potentially faulty switch, but that option was not made available to homeowners. "What really galls me is they're making money on ... a defective product," says Osborne. "It's out of my pocket, and it should be out of theirs."

For its part, GE points out that the dishwashers in question are at least 10 years old "and have no market value whatsoever," spokeswoman Kim Freeman says.

As for the "fix," Ms. Freeman says that most consumers don't have the skill to rewire a major appliance, and besides, disabling the energy-saving switch does not constitute a repair, it's a stop-gap measure.

The recall of 3.1 million dishwashers is just one of hundreds that will be conducted this year, but it exemplifies some of the challenges the government faces in getting harmful products out of American homes.

"Our goal is to protect consumers and get the best deal for consumers we can," says Ralph Rader (no, not Nader), spokesman for the Consumers Products Safety Commission (CPSC) in Washington, which worked with GE for a year on the dishwasher recall. "Some companies unfortunately don't share that goal."

The fact that the government agency can't force a company to replace a dangerous product troubles some experts.

"Unfortunately, [the program's success] seems to depend a lot on the company," says Todd Smith, vice president of Safety Alerts, a Troy-Mich.,-based Web site that posts recalls and other health alerts. "The government doesn't have a lot of authority to force recalls. As a consumer, I'm kind of wondering why."

If a company refuses to do a recall, the CPSC can take them to court, an option Mr. Rader says has been exercised three or four times during the past 10 years, most recently for defective fire sprinklers. In that instance, the company settled before the case went to trial.

Every year about 300 products - the majority of them children's products - are yanked off store shelves after being declared potentially dangerous, the CPSC says.

When pharmaceuticals and food (which are regulated by the FDA) are added in, the number goes way up. For example, by Halloween this year, some 691 products had been recalled - everything from snow blowers to pumpkin-shaped tea lights and trail mix with "undeclared peanuts."

Keeping up with the latest recall information presents a daunting task to even the most dedicated shopper, especially since not every recall gets wide media coverage. And with the starting bell having officially sounded for the Christmas shopping season, this is the time of year when consumers are on the alert, trying to avoid presents that have to go back to the store almost as soon as they're unwrapped.

(Remember the Cabbage Patch doll from a few winters ago that snacked on the hair of unsuspecting children?)

The good news is that most households probably only purchased one or two recalled products, at most, experts say. "Out of all the recalls this year, none have affected me personally," says Mr. Smith. "People don't pay attention, but you need to keep an eye out for that one [product]."

The CPSC has a hotline and a Web site that consumers can call to find out if they need to bring in their snow blower or waffle iron to be repaired.

People can also sign up to receive via fax or e-mail the same press releases the media get. "We're really good at getting products off store shelves," Rader says. The challenge, he adds, is getting them out of the hands of consumers.

Overall, only about half of recalled items are turned in, a study found, although the percentage can be as high as 80 or 90 percent for big-ticket items such as appliances.

Smith praises companies that seem genuinely concerned about their customers, and either alert consumers to a potential hazard even before the CPSC gets involved or offer a variety of incentives to get consumers to bring in their products.

For example, earlier this month Sony Computer Entertainment of America announced on their Web site that consumers whose PlayStation power cords were fraying could bring them in for a replacement cord. "That to me is an excellent example of where companies make an extra effort," he says.

Another example he cites is a recent Mickey Mouse waffle iron recall. Disney offered a $50 rebate for customers who brought the iron in to be repaired. "Companies who are concerned about consumers want to take an extra step to motivate customers to bring" in the recalled item, says Rader.

Certainly Osborne hasn't been motivated by his lone experience with recalls. Firetrap or no, Osborne says he's going to keep using the old dishwasher to clean his cereal bowls and silverware. "I can't afford a new one," he says flatly.

Can't recall what's been recalled? Where to go

If you'd like to receive information about recalled products, here are a few steps recommended by the Consumer Products Safety Commission:

*Return registration or warranty cards so manufacturers can reach you directly if there is a recall.

*Call the CPSC hotline at 1-800-638-2772

*Check the Web site

*To receive recall notices by fax, e-mail, or regular mail free of charge, call the hotline or write:

Consumer Products Safety Commission, Washington, DC, 20207

- Y.Z.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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