WASHINGTON — The number of consumer product recalls fell to its lowest level in 16 years in 2019, marking the third year in a row under mostly Republican leadership that federal regulators have announced fewer product safety problems, according to Washington Post calculations.
But there are early signs that the new head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission plans a more aggressive approach to companies selling potentially unsafe products.
Last year, the CPSC announced 241 recalls, including for unstable furniture, flammable clothing and dangerous lawnmowers. The highest-profile recall involved 5 million units of the popular Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play, an infant inclined sleeper tied to more than 30 deaths.
The 2019 total was down 7% from 2018, which itself was 8% lower than in 2017. That’s the year that Republican Ann Marie Buerkle took over as the commission’s acting chairwoman after President Donald Trump nominated her to the job, giving her day-to-day control of the agency. She stepped down from her leadership post in late September, rather than seek Senate confirmation to a new term, amid criticism of her handling of safety issues.
The CPSC under Buerkle also posted a steady decline in the number of companies hit with civil penalties for failing to follow safety rules, dropping from six firms in 2016 to none in 2019, according to agency data.
“It just always felt like something was holding them back,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of the advocacy group Kids in Danger, who said she doubted that the drop in activity was due to products being safer.
CPSC spokesman Joe Martyak cautioned against using the recall numbers to judge the agency’s performance, noting that they don’t reflect other agency efforts to stop unsafe products from reaching consumers and that the numbers fail to distinguish between different levels of danger.
Last November’s recall of 270 FlipStix knitting needles (reports of needles breaking but no injuries) is counted the same as last July’s recall of 9,700 Cannondale bicycles (report of the bike’s fork suddenly fracturing, causing several serious injuries and one death).
The CPSC recall list also contains only those recalls that companies agreed to perform. CPSC recalls are almost always voluntary. If a company refuses to recall, the agency can file a lawsuit. But it rarely takes that step.
The last recall lawsuit came in 2018, when the agency’s three Democratic commissioners voted to overrule Buerkle’s objections and went to court to force Britax to recall its BOB jogging stroller. The stroller was involved in hundreds of crashes caused by the sudden detachment of the stroller’s front wheel. The case ended in a controversial settlement — approved by the agency’s new Republican majority — allowing Britax to avoid a formal recall. Instead, the company launched an information campaign that, as Post reporting later revealed, failed to notify some retailers as required and offered a defective fix to some consumers.
Now, with a new acting chairman running the CPSC, Democrat Robert Adler, the agency is trying a different tactic to force the hand of reluctant companies.
The CPSC last Wednesday issued a rare product safety alert — and made it clear the agency wanted the product taken off the market. The warning said a four-drawer dresser made by Hodedah was a tip-over risk and that the CPSC “intends to continue pressing the case for a recall with Hodedah.”
The notice was unusual because it acknowledged that the agency and company disagreed about the need for a recall. Negotiations over recalls normally are not revealed to the public, giving companies considerable leverage.
Hodedah, a manufacturer based in New York, did not respond to requests for comment. The CPSC warning notice said the agency discovered the problem during its own stability testing of Hodedah’s dresser. The agency is developing mandatory safety regulations for furniture. Furniture tip-overs were blamed for 89 deaths, mostly children, from 2014 to 2018, the agency said.
Wednesday’s safety alert is known as a “unilateral” inside the CPSC because it is one the few ways for regulators to take action without a company’s permission, according to a senior agency official who did not have permission to talk with the media. The tool is rarely used. The last one was in 2011 for a baby high chair that clamped to a table, which was associated with several injuries. Three months after that alert, the company agreed to a formal recall.
Adler said in a statement that while it’s difficult to judge the CPSC’s performance based on recall statistics, “I’ve been open about my desire to have the agency serve as a more vocal watchdog for consumers, and I hope that we can get there in the near future.”
Recalls fell almost 15% during Buerkle’s nearly three-year tenure, compared with the same preceding time period, The Post found.
The products removed from store shelves in 2019 included 19 motorized vehicles, such as a snowmobile and recreational utility vehicles. Ten recalls involved bicycles and bike accessories. Six were for infant sleep products.