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Using Tech to Inform Consumers About Dangerous Products

Recently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released its new recall “app.” The CPSC, the nation’s chief product safety regulator, released the app in an effort to make recall information more accessible to consumers and as part of the agency’s push to modernize the recall communication process and encourage manufacturers to develop marketing strategies for recalls.

The agency has been largely unsuccessful in getting consumers to return unsafe products to retailers, and recall rates remain shockingly low. The average rate at which consumers participate in corrective actions is about 6% for all product types. A high-profile recall Ikea of dressers in 2016 resulted in only 175,000 refunds and 268,000 re-installations of the dangerous dressers that year despite the fact that the recall affected more than 17 million dressers. The defective Malm model dresser, which has injured 91 reported and killed 8 children after the dresser tipped over onto them.

So, the app is a positive development for an agency working to better grab consumers’ attention. The app’s home page features recent recalls with photographs, the recall date, and a brief description of the product. It also contains a search feature which allows users to filter by product name, product model, and/or date range.

It remains to be seen how helpful the app will be to consumers. First, the “app” label is misleading – it is actually a web page on the CPSC site. While users are encouraged to “install” it by saving the web page to the home screen of their phones, any attempt to view the details of the featured products on the “installed” app simply redirects users to the CPSC web page for that specific product. Second, the app lacks any notification system for users to set and receive alerts for recalls on specific products. Therefore, it appears that the app would be useful only for users who regularly search for recalled products or had already heard of a recall elsewhere and were simply visiting the app to confirm that a recall was underway.

The CPSC did note that the current version of the app is a beta version and is encouraging user feedback on its effectiveness.

While the app is a positive development, Public Citizen continues to advocate for more robust agency action to get unsafe products out of consumers’ homes. For example, we continue to urge the agency to update its saferproducts.gov database to ensure it is an effective repository of data that alerts the public to guard against products that could cause injury or death. In addition, Public Citizen has called on the agency to advertise the database on social media, expand and improve the data categories of harm that are listed on the database, and collaborate with federal government technologists in order to bring their much-needed expertise into the effort to improve the database. Hopefully, the agency’s new web tool will be one of many innovations to help the CPSC more effectively carry out its mission to protect consumers from unreasonable risk of injury or death.