No. 3: Recalls

Product recalls are hardly new, but they’re on the rise — thanks to increased industry sensitivity and improved testing. The White House, as part of its 21st-century mission to unite bureaucracy and technology, consolidated recall news from several regulatory agencies in 2010 — and created an app devoted to product recalls.

The call-backs in 2010 were notable because of the companies and products involved, and in some cases the sheer scale. One of the standouts was Toyota, the Japan-based car maker. From late 2009 and throughout 2010, the company, long known for its quality, recalled roughly 14 million vehicles in its model line for a variety of mechanical issues. Whether Toyota can restore its reputation remains to be seen, but the recalls have weighed heavily on its image.

Johnson & Johnson shut down a plant after multiple recalls, including for Tylenol, Benadryl, and Children’s Tylenol.

And there’s no forgetting this summer, when hundreds of millions of eggs from Iowa’s Wright County Egg and Hillendale Farms were taken off store shelves owing to worries about salmonella. (Inspectors found live critters and 8-foot-high piles of manure on site.) In case anyone did forget, a November recall of Ohio Fresh eggs prodded people’s memory — especially since the same owners of the tainted Iowa farms were involved.

Another prominent recall involved Graco Children’s Products, which pulled around 2 million strollers from the marketplace amid fears they could lead to infants becoming entangled or even strangled. Graco and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) disclosed that four cases of infant strangulation had taken place in recent years.

Other cases included Similac baby formula, McDonald promotional Shrek glasses, an automobile recall by Nissan, Lowe’s blinds, St. Jude Medical‘s surgical device removal.

In their defense, many of the companies involved in recent recalls have shown admirable contrition. Toyota, for instance, went to great lengths in 2010 to admit it had made mistakes, to acknowledge how serious those errors were, and to promise to get them fixed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the CPSC are at the heart of this nation’s efforts to ensure product safety and quality. But it’s a monumental task: Inspecting every manufactured product Americans buy is clearly impossible, and employees of the various agencies are only human.

Six agencies with various powers have combined their efforts to update the public on product announcements at Recalls.gov. Still, it’s worth repeating that the system isn’t perfect. The FDA and Johnson & Johnson were called out this year by a House of Representatives committee that described their dealings as “too cozy.”

–Chris Nichols

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