Product recall announcements in the UK are never far from the headlines – but the volume of cross-industry cases is almost impossible to track, with a number of websites claiming to offer the most up-to-date master list of live recalls.
In days gone by, trading standards would have printed adverts in local newspapers and posted banners in relevant distributors’ windows. But the internet has put a stop to that not only because of the volume of information online – both trustworthy and otherwise – but also because of consumers reselling products online and across borders.
For regulators and enforcement officers to ensure the complete removal of products from online marketplaces, they would essentially have to check them constantly.
“It comes down to recall of product, but that requires resources for the regulator which they simply don’t have,” says Mark Gardiner, CEO of Market Surveillance Specialists and CTSI Lead Officer for Product Safety. “With the best will in the world you could require corrective action, you could require the disposal of products but there’s a time resource issue and getting someone to actually confirm that a complete disposal has happened.”
Instead, most officers focus on working with organisations to increase traceability and product identification, he says. As ever, the issue for officers is one
“There’s a distinct group of businesses who take this seriously and a distinct group of businesses who just don’t bother, and who just don’t take the appropriate action,” says Gardiner. “There’s a lot of businesses who in my view don’t fully understand consumer risk and their obligations to act on it. The chronic under-resourcing of trading standards means that a lot of these organisations can’t be taken to task. You need many more officers on the ground.”
As far as educating those organisations, Gardiner acknowledges that “the direction of travel is positive”. Not least thanks to the publication of PAS 7050 and PAS 7100 Code of Practice for Corrective Actions and Recalls, sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). With the new rules, businesses must consider product safety as part of their business risk.
Not everyone believes the rules go far enough though.
“The new guidelines are really good but one of the areas it doesn’t cover is how manufacturers communicate to retailers who have been stocking a product,” says Tim Gass, Regulatory Compliance Manager (trading standards) at Tesco, and member of the CTSI Board. “Quite often we see a recall to the public is announced and that’s the first time we’ve heard about it too – so a customer hears about a recall, calls us up immediately and wants all the answers. There’s still a challenge.”
For an organisation like Tesco, social media can be a useful way to communicate recalls, and the fact the supermarket giant keeps ClubCard holders’ contact details means it can often easily trace the buyer. However, as Gass points out, it can be difficult to actually get consumers to bring faulty or dangerous products back, especially if they are of low value or limited use. Responsible organisations are therefore attempting to incentivise returns by offering replacements of equal or greater value – which also comes with obvious drawbacks. Getting those products out of the market is crucial, says Gass.
“It’s a bit of a challenge because you can’t compel people to bring things back because it’s their product – they own it. That’s the difficult thing, even if you offered them lots of money to bring something back they can still keep hold of it if they really want to, and you lose control of it.”
For Gardiner, many of the problems are tied to the increasingly complex supply chains and the globalised nature of modern commerce. The European Commission has attempted to bring clarity and consistency to the types of products entering the markets with the so-called Goods Package, which sets out to offer direction on market surveillance and the movement of products into and out of the Union.
“The law does need improvement and the EU is trying to improve that now with the Goods Package,” he says. “It will upgrade a lot of the current requirements particularly in relation to traceability, and dealing with instances in which someone has bought something outside of the single market, or there’s fulfilment houses where no one takes responsibility for the product. But whether or not we have that law inserted into UK law, we don’t know yet.”