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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 February 2007, 14:08 GMT
How effective are product recalls?
The Magazine answers...

Ikea's Parodi vases - the base could break off without warning
Product recalls have multiplied more than four-fold in seven years, according to research. But how effective are they?

From the inside pages of newspapers, to shop windows - notices for product recalls are part of the daily backdrop of our consumer society.

In the past month alone, product safety recalls have included a promotional child's umbrella, several varieties of supermarket own-brand houmous, a brand of electrical time-delay switches, a Marks and Spencer ready meal and two sorts of Ikea vase.

Few of these make big headlines, although last week's Cadbury Easter egg recall - due to an absence of nut allergy labelling - was something of an exception. So what kind of success rate do product recalls have in reaching consumers?

The average recall recovers 37% of the products sold, according to government research. The figure dates back to a report issued by the Department of Trade and Industry in 2000, which remains the most recent study.

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Yet behind this headline figure, rates varied greatly, depending chiefly on the value of the item being recalled.

Items costing less than 10 tended to achieve recall rates of less than 10%, while the average rate for goods above that threshold was 44% to 51%, "rising slightly as the cost of the product increases above 50".

Other factors also had an influence on how likely a product was to be returned by customers. They included:

• how risky a consumer perceives the faulty product to be
• the age and value of the product
• the media used to highlight a recall, and
• the money spent trying to alert consumers

A lot has changed in the seven years since this research was published, with a tightening up of recall regulations. Since 2005, suppliers can now be forced to issue recall notices. And while there's only been one case of this, according to Jason McNerlin, a solicitor and product recall specialist, there seems to be a greater wariness in industry, with recalls rising more than four-fold since 2000.

Cadbury Easter eggs
No strangers to product recalls, Cadbury recalled some Easter eggs
Last year there were 179 product recalls on safety grounds in the UK - an 8% rise on 2005, and significantly more than the 42 at the start of the decade. [See internet links, right, for a full list.]

But there are no set procedures and targeting the right consumers is often a shot in the dark. To prove the point, how many of the above recalls have you heard of?

"They're not terribly effective," says Dave Roderick, chairman of the Trading Standards Institute. About 10 years ago he was involved in the recall of a gas fire - "the sort of product that, then at least, was fairly traceable since it would have been sold, and installed, by British Gas or a very limited number of builders' merchants".

Even after an initial and follow-up recall, "only about 60% - 70%" of customers got in contact.

"Where there's a known customer base, such as motor vehicle recalls which manufacturers do through the DVLA, I was told that they still only get about 80%."

While there's no official code of practice for issuing a recall, suppliers are ever mindful of lawyers ready to pounce if they're found to have bungled a recall. Trading standards officers (TSOs) are generally on the look out to see whether companies have taken "all reasonable steps".

With this in mind, many large suppliers have an unofficial check list, says Mr McNerlin. It includes issuing notices in newspapers where the product itself had originally been advertised; posting notices in shop windows, issuing a press release and notifying relevant TSOs.

Telephone helplines are also increasingly common, as are free-post addresses, with incentives such as free vouchers offered to those who return goods.

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