Not-so-total recall: Most federal agencies can't order consumer product recalls

Dangerous products are sold every day - but you'll have to guess which ones.

When it comes to consumer products, Canadians are a trusting bunch. We figure that if a product has made it to the store shelves, it’s not going to explode in our hands or poison us. (See Death in the dollar store if you thought any item on a store’s shelf had to be safe.)

The reality is much scarier. Every year Canadian firms issue over a thousand recalls for cars, toys, appliances, electronics, drugs and food products that can cause injury or even death. Yet chances are good that you’ll never find out if you have one of these faulty products in your home. Despite the obvious need for a simple, comprehensive catalogue of these faulty products, the government has yet to establish such a list.

Why? Blame it on bureaucratic turf wars and lack of funding. Four federal departments and many provincial ministries are responsible for different types of recalls, and each has its own procedures and policies. Getting all these departments to cooperate doesn’t seem to be a high priority for legislators.

This lack of co-ordination is entirely in keeping with our country’s decidedly, um, low-key approach to consumer safety. Despite what you may assume, government agencies rely largely on consumers and manufacturers to alert them to dangerous products in the first place, and most have no legal authority to force a recall. Rather surprisingly, the most comprehensive source for recall information in Canada isn’t operated by any of the departments that actually issue recalls. Instead, it’s an ad hoc Web site put together by CBC’s Marketplace program. (See Yes, but will it kill me? for this and other sources of recall information.)

None of this seems to faze the heads of the various departments, who say they’re doing a good job of protecting Canadians. Perhaps they are. But you won’t be reassured when you learn that in cases where Health Canada’s Consumer Product Safety Bureau has tried to find out what percentage of recalled products were actually trashed, returned, fixed or replaced, it’s found rates of 30% or even lower.

Jonathan Williams, mechanical and electrical hazards manager at the bureau, says rates are so low because many defective products are cheap toys. If a recall is issued, parents just throw out the offending gadget rather than returning it. But the low success rate might also have something to do with the fact that the department doesn’t issue a press release for most recalls or attempt to contact consumers directly. Instead, it asks the manufacturer or distributor to take care of communicating with buyers. If a company decides not to comply, most Canadian government agencies don’t have the legal power to force it to do so unless the company is actually breaking the law.

This system stands in stark contrast to the situation south of the border. In the U.S., the federal government does have the power to order recalls. It also runs a comprehensive site at listing all the products ordered off the shelves.

It would not be difficult to build a similar site in Canada. Nigel Mortimer, head of recalls at Transport Canada, says he’s working with other departments to put together an all-in-one centralized depository like the one in the U.S. “We’re trying to protect Canadians as best we can, and one Web site would be the easiest way of doing it,” he says. “But we need more funding so that we can actually launch the thing.”

Here’s hoping they get it.