Anatomy of a Recall Part 1: Identification

How recalls occur

This post was contributed to by former Consumer Product Safety Commission Inspector Doug Pinheiro. It is the first of a three-part series on recalls, the other two parts being on evaluating the severity of problems and spreading word about the recall.

This three-part series will deal specifically with consumer product recalls conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC is an independent federal regulatory agency with jurisdiction over most consumer products. The agency's mission statement is to protect consumers from unreasonable risks of injury or death from the use of thousands of consumer products under its jurisdiction. Consumer products under the jurisdiction of other agencies would include firearms, boats, planes, food, cosmetics, drugs and motor vehicles.

In Part I of this series, I will outline the tools and methods used by CPSC to identify potentially hazardous products which may lead to a recall.

Consumer Complaint

CPSC receives the majority of complaints regarding incident or product safety concerns through their websites at and and their toll-free Safety Hotline at 1-800-638-2772. The home pages of these websites are easy to navigate for the reporting consumer.  CPSC can receive these consumer complaints via e-mail, fax, telephone and postal mail.

If you, the consumer, would like to file a report with CPSC, these are the go-to websites. I would also like to mention that reports are not limited to consumers, they can also be received from the industry as trade complaints or whistleblowers in the industry. These websites also contain a wealth of product safety information and are well worth taking a look at.

Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA)

The CPSC was formed on May 14, 1973, under the provisions of the Consumer Product Safety Act. This is the law under which CPSC derives much of its authority.  There is a section under the CPSA that establishes mandatory reporting requirements for manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers of consumer products, or other product or substances distributed in commerce over which CPSC has jurisdiction.

Each entity must notify the CPSC immediately if it obtains information which reasonably supports the conclusion that a product distributed in commerce fails to comply with an applicable consumer product safety rule or with a voluntary consumer product safety standard, or fails to comply with any other rule, regulation, standard or ban under the CPSA or any other Act enforced by CPSC. Reporting by companies under this section can provide the most timely and effective source of information about such products as firms often learn of potential product safety problems at an early stage.

Failure of a firm to report this information immediately (within 24 hours) can result in substantial civil or criminal penalties.  If a firm is unsure if the information they have received is reportable, the CPSC's advice is "when in doubt, report".

Medical Examiners and Coroners Alert Project (MECAP)

MECAP was originally designed by CPSC in 1976 as a quick alert system whereby medical examiners and coroners throughout the country could report product-related deaths where the product played a significant role in the accident sequence. There are over 100 contracted hospitals, the majority being trauma centers, which regularly report accidental death incidents to CPSC through this program.

MECAP has been a resounding success story for CPSC with thousands of pertinent cases reported over the years.  Cases obtained through this program have supported standards development (e.g., chainsaws and power mowers) and many supporting product recalls (e.g., cribs for asphyxiations).  A sampling of these reports are published in Newsletters that can be accessed at on the CPSC website. They definitely make for interesting reading.

Other Methods

State Health Departments: To complement the MECAP program, CPSC also partners with state health departments.  State health departments forward death certificates to CPSC involving accidental deaths related to consumer products.

News Reports: CPSC utilizes news feeds and clipping services to obtain product safety-related news stories and product-related incidents from a myriad of news platforms.

Internet: CPSC monitors ecommerce sales websites in search of potentially hazardous products not sold in brick-and-mortar stores.

Outreach: CPSC field investigators are required to conduct outreach programs in their local communities and states.  As a former CPSC field investigator, I was a member of the New York State Association of County Coroners and Medical Examiners.  I attended their conferences and fostered the MECAP program and the reporting of accidental deaths of interest to CPSC.  I was also involved with Safe Kids.

These are the methods and tools employed by CPSC to obtain information on potentially hazardous consumer products. Now that CPSC is aware of these products, what do they do next?  Stay tuned for Part II.