Total Recall: 3 Tips to Know When You’ve Bought Something Bad

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On Christmas Eve, Whole Foods Market had quite the holiday gift for its healthy-lifestyle customers: a recall of ginger bread houses that it sold in 23 states because they had been “connected to several outbreaks of Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) food poisoning.”

In fact, Whole Foods has dutifully reported more than a dozen recalled products this year – which you can digest under the company’s Product Recalls page. A quick perusal of that page teaches you a few things…

  1. Even a grocery chain renowned for its natural and organic products faces a lot of recalls each year.
  2. One reason for so many recalls is that big companies like Whole Foods buy from smaller companies that don’t always get it right. (The aforementioned ginger bread houses were manufactured by a gourmet bakery called Rolf’s Patisserie in Lincoln, Ill. – which announced its voluntary recall on its home page after 100 people got sick.)
  3. If there are so many recalls, how are you supposed to know about them all without visiting a products recall page for every business you buy from?

While Toyota has been the poster child for recalls the past couple of years – including a recall of nearly 100,000 Sienna minivans just last month – it’s not just cars and food that require manufacturers to take them back. In the last week alone, American Honda recalled snowblowers “due to a fire hazard” and a Seattle company called BabyLegs recalled children’s leg warmers and socks because of “a heart applique that can detach, posing a choking hazard.”

There are so many recalls, it’s become an irony – instead of helping consumers, the sheer number of recalls paralyzes them. Or so claims Consumer Reports. In a survey it released last month, the venerable magazine reported, “Only one-fifth of U.S. adults were aware of having purchased food, medication, or a product (other than a car) that was recalled in the past three years.”

Among the survey’s other findings…

  • “Of the 20 percent of the population who believe they purchased a recalled product, nearly 40 percent responded that it was for food, almost 40 percent for a medication, and 24 percent for a product.”
  • “Less than one quarter of Americans researched a product they purchased to see if it was recalled.”
  • “Half of Americans were not confident that manufacturers and retailers shared safety information with government agencies and two-fifths lacked confidence that manufacturers and retailers provided consumers with appropriate product recall information.”

About that last point: While car companies will try to track you down and mail and/or email you about their product recalls, it’s not always the case for smaller items – especially contaminated food, which can make you sick or even kill you. So what can you reasonably do?

Nothing is infallible, but here are three helpful tips…

  1. If you buy an appliance or electronics product and habitually throw out those “registration cards,” take a minute and fill them out. Sure, companies use these cards to acquire your personal data. But if you already use a free email account for such things – and many folks do these days – simply provide that email address and check it every so often for recall notices.
  2. If you bought a recalled Toyota, and millions have, we wrote about that already. Check out I’ve Got One of the Recalled Toyotas. Now What?
  3. For many other items, you need to check them out, because they aren’t coming to you. There are several reputable websites that collect product recall information.

Checking these websites out takes only a few minutes and could save you both time and trouble. What’s interesting is that no single site has all the latest or complete information, so you may want to peruse each one every so often…

1. From the government

There have been so many recalls that the federal government has launched a website called Recalls.gov – touted as a “one stop shop for U.S. Government recalls.”

Pros: It offers a real-time list of all recalls in nine categories and even offers email alerts and a mobile phone app.

Cons: It’s hard to navigate (check out the Recent Recalls page) and offers almost too much information written in bureaucratic language.

2. From WebMD

The health site has partnered with the Food and Drug Administration to offer a Protect Your Health page that includes product recalls for food, cosmetics, and medical products.

Pros: It’s user-friendly and written in plain English.

Cons: Obviously, it doesn’t include recalls for products other than those listed, and its food recalls aren’t as up to date as other sites.

3. From Consumer Reports

While the magazine and its website report on recalls, it brings all that information together in one handy blog called Safety Alert.

Pros: The blog format and Consumer Reports’ conversational writing style make it easy to figure out not only what’s being recalled, but how serious the problem is. (Let’s face it, if you’re not allergic to milk and soy, you probably still eat this recalled brand of Orzo.)

Cons: A blog is hard to search for specific items, and this site includes not just recalls but also warnings of all kinds – which might not matter to you.

Taken together, these three sites offer a lot of information – and reassurance that someone out there is looking out for us.

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