Do you have “Recall Fatigue”?

This post was authored by Brian Nash and posted to The Eye Opener on July 3rd, 2010.

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Early in my foray into blogging, I thought tracking and reporting on recalls would be a worthwhile project. I did the usual setting-up of RSS feeds, email notification of updates and the like. As time passed and my inbox filled with new recall after new recall, I began to wonder – is this really worth it? Is anyone really paying attention to these seemingly endless postings about a defective this and a life-altering that? After a few months, I decided that maybe we should only be reporting on the important recalls. Well, what’s important? Is it the crib that severs limbs or kills babies? Is it the food product that poisons a host of people? Perhaps it’s that nice pull-over for toddlers that can choke them. Of course, that piece of clothing that can burst into flames has to make the list. ¬†Week in, week out – they came rolling in and out on the blogosphere some went. I started identifying less and less of these recalls as newsworthy, but I’m not sure why I did that. One reason was clear – no one seemed to be reading what we posted on the recalls – well maybe a hit here or a hit there.

Then on Friday I came across an article in the Washington Post that brought a good deal of clarity to the apparent disinterest of the public and our readers to product recalls – “recall fatigue.”

Lyndsey Layton, a staff reporter for the Post, must have wondered about the same issues bothering me – thus her article entitled “Officials Worry About Consumers Lost Among the Recalls.” I commend it to your reading. Putting the recall overload into perspective, she writes:

McDonald’s asked customers to return 12 million glasses emblazoned with the character Shrek. Kellogg’s warned consumers to stop eating 28 million boxes of Froot Loops and other cereals. Campbell Soup asked the public to return 15 million pounds of SpaghettiOs, and seven companies recalled 2 million cribs.

Then comes the most telling line – “And that was just a fraction of the products recalled in the United States last month alone.”

Ms. Layton reports that “one recent study found that 12 percent of Americans who knew they had recalled food at home ate it anyway. After Hasbro recalled the iconic Easy Bake Oven in 2007 because about two dozen children had gotten fingers stuck in the door, the toymaker received 249 more reports of injuries over the following six months. One 5-year-old girl was so seriously burned that doctors had to partially amputate a finger.”

Are Americans just bleary eyed, immune, overwhelmed in today’s endless stream of information? Do stories of recalls like the Toyota fiasco so dominate the news that we lose sight of the less publicized recall stories? What is it that would let a parent ignore the dangers to their child from a life-threatening or maiming recalled product? Do they just not know about it? That may be true for some, I would imagine, but how does that answer the mind-boggling statistic cited by Ms. Layton that 88% of Americans who knew they had recalled food products in their home – ate the food anyway?! What percentage of parents knew they had a dangerous crib and let their child sleep in it anyway? You know that the vast majority care deeply for their child’s safety. So how on earth could they simply ignore the danger warnings?

Ms. Layton suggests the problem is twofold: “Some people never learn that a product they own has been recalled, and others know they have a recalled product but don’t think anything bad will happen.”

Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco says, “We call it the Chicken Little syndrome. If you keep shouting at the wind — ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ — people literally become immune to the message.” He believes the system in place simply doesn’t work.

The “system” – in case you were not aware – includes a government maintained website,¬†, offering information about all kinds of recalls, and consumers can subscribe for e-mail alerts about specific products. That’s what we subscribed to and which we still track. Check it out for a week or two (hopefully longer if you can get over the ‘fatigue factor’). You’ll see what we are talking about – you’ll be amazed at the number of product recalls. Oh, just in case you don’t have time to boot-up your desktop or laptop, a new mobile version for your smartphone was just announced.

Whether it’s information overload, the ‘it won’t happen to me” syndrome, the “Chicken Little syndrome – people simply need to start paying more attention! Sure – you can say, what are the odds that this will happen to my family? Well – when it happens to YOU or YOUR FAMILY, the odds just became 100%.

What is the best – or at least a ‘better’ way to get people to pay attention and take heed of these warnings? Any psychologists or maybe people with just good common sense have any good ideas? Do you care about product recalls? Do you want to hear about them more often or less often? Since we are an internet and TV society – is this the way to go? Maybe flash warnings like we get for hurricanes, tornadoes, floods? Oops – the remote control’s fast forward might kill that approach.

So what is the answer? Is there an answer? Should we keep blogging on these recalls? I’m not sure anymore. Ms. Layton’s article makes me at least wonder – if one person gets the message and one life is saved or one person not maimed – maybe it is worth it. On the other hand, if we report on it, are we adding to “recall fatigue”?

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