Product Recalls: Gaping Holes in the Nation's Product Safety Net. (Bits, Briefs, and Applications)

By Felcher, E. Marla | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Product Recalls: Gaping Holes in the Nation's Product Safety Net. (Bits, Briefs, and Applications)


Felcher, E. Marla, The Journal of Consumer Affairs


On the morning of May 12, 1998, Linda Ginzel left her 17-month-old son Danny at Sweet Tots daycare, just as she did most weekday mornings. When Linda said goodbye to Danny, he was laughing as his daycare provider, Anna, tickled him under the chin. The next time Linda and her husband Boaz saw their son, that afternoon, he was lifeless, bundled in a receiving blanket by the emergency room nurses at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

This is how Danny died. Anna put him down for a nap, just as she did every morning, in a Playskool portable crib. When she checked on him a little later, Anna found that the crib had folded up with Danny in it, trapping the child's neck in the V-shaped wedge of its collapsed rails. Apparently, Danny had grabbed the crib's top rails and tried to stand. Though the toddler weighed only 25 pounds, the rails collapsed under his weight, snapping shut at the center hinge. Danny had been asphyxiated by his crib (Eig 1998; Felcher 2000).

Danny's parents, Linda and Boaz, both University of Chicago professors, are my friends. When Danny died, I was living in Boston, on leave from Northwestern University, where I taught marketing. A mutual friend called to tell me Danny had died. How, I asked her, could a healthy baby, the child of two safety-vigilant professors, be killed by a brand-name crib? She had no idea. I flew to Chicago for Danny's funeral.

Gathered under a hot afternoon sun at the cemetery, Linda and Boaz's family and friends stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight semi-circle around Danny's grave. The mourners, mostly business school and psychology professors, were dressed in their best professional clothes, well-tailored dark suits and crisp white shirts, looking, I thought, as though they were ready to teach in an executive M.B.A. program. But once Linda stood to address the crowd, to tell us about her son's brief life, there was no mistaking what we were there for. "Because he was only 17 months old," Linda started, "most of you never had the opportunity to know him."

A few days after the funeral we read in the Chicago Tribune that Danny's death had not been an isolated incident (Bigness 1998). The Playskool Travel-Lite crib that had strangled Danny had killed four other infants. The U.S. government had ordered it off of store shelves--recalled it--five years earlier. Danny was victim five. Six weeks after Danny died, a N.J. toddler became the Playskool Travel-Lite's sixth victim (CPSC August 20, 1998). So far, one out of every two thousand Travel-Lites sold has killed a child.

We also learned that the Playksool Trave-Lite was not the only dangerous portable crib on the market. Between 1990 and 1997, more than 1.5 million portable cribs manufactured by Evenflo, Draco, Century Products, and Baby Trend had a similar faulty design, a center hinge on the top rails (CPSC August 21, 1998). An 11-month-old Los Angeles boy was the first child to die in one of the cribs in 1991, and Danny was the twelfth.

Flying back to Boston, I jotted questions onto a cocktail napkin that continued to nag at me. What does "recall" mean, operationally? What does "recall" not mean? How many children's products are recalled each year? How many children are injured by products intended to keep them safe? How was it that I had a doctorate in marketing, yet I had never once come across a discussion of product recalls? By the time my plane touched down in Boston, I had vowed to spend the remainder of my leave-of-absence researching these questions. At the time, I had no idea it would take me over two years to find the answers, and to fully understand why Danny died.

CONSUMER PRODUCT REGULATION

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the federal regulatory agency responsible for overseeing the safety of most consumer products in the U. S., including durable baby products, home improvement products (e.g., power tools, lawnmowers, drills, and ladders), and recreation equipment (e. …

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