Cracks in product safety occurring at home

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Recalls of unsafe products continue to make headlines.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/10/2010 (4384 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Recalls of unsafe products continue to make headlines.

The latest recall of more than 500 million eggs in the U.S. tops a list of large recalls this year. A few others that come to mind are: McDonald’s recall of 12 million Shrek-themed glasses; Johnson and Johnson’s recall of three million bottles of Tylenol; Maytag’s recall of 1.7 million dishwashers; and many recalls of cars by Toyota, Ford and others. Fisher-Price just announced a recall of more than 10 million tricycles, toys and high chairs.

Most of these products were made in the U.S. But recalls of Canadian-made products are not uncommon. For example, children’s educational kits were recalled earlier this year because they contained excess lead and Vicks cold medicine was recalled because its packaging was not child-resistant.

The recall of North American-made products raises the question of why products made here are increasingly recalled? The reasons might lie in the offshoring of manufacturing to China and other developing countries as well as the recent rise in recalls of products made in China.

As manufacturing shifts out of the country, it’s possible companies on this side of the world lose significant types of expertise related to product design, development and manufacturing. This might result in making more faulty products.

The rising number of recalls could also be due to the changing focus of product safety efforts in recent years.

Since 2007, a number of recalls involved products made in China. As a result, the attention of all stakeholders — industry, government, regulators, consumers and media — was focused on “import product safety.” A predominant focus on imports from China made sense as more and more products were coming from that country. But it may have given rise to a complacency in the U.S. and Canada about products made in this part of the world.

When we expect problems, we are more careful. When we do not expect problems, we are less careful and slip-ups can occur.

Maytag’s recalls are a case in point. When a defect involved external suppliers, Maytag was quick to issue a recall, likely because they had more systems to monitor external suppliers. But when products were made by Maytag itself, recalls came slower and only after a number of incidents and injuries.

We all know companies need systems to monitor the opportunistic behaviour of contractors halfway across the world. But, internal control systems to monitor what goes on inside factories here are equally important.

If there are no control and inspection systems, we get to see the kind of violations reported in some recent recalls. The violations in the egg farms were far too many and were called “stomach churning.”

Johnson and Johnson was once known as the gold standard of recall management because it managed its Tylenol recall well in the ’80s. The recent violations in its factories were numerous. On top of that, Johnson and Johnson was accused of engaging a third party to buy back its products from store shelves instead of announcing a recall.

Early last year, Peanut Corporation of America shook the U.S. and Canada with its vast recalls. Several violations were found in their factories too.

If this logic is true — one hopes it is not and that these recalls are isolated cases — then recalls of U.S.-manufactured products will rise. To stop that, it’s important all stakeholders of product safety look as much within the U.S. as they do outside.

Also, companies must look within their boundaries as much as they do outside. They need systems to monitor production within their own factories, as it is often easy to be blindsided by familiarity.

It’s true a number of the recent recalls were of products made in China and the U.S. But Canadian companies should not think it couldn’t happen to them. Any complacency in control and monitoring systems can result in recalls, which could not only damage the companies but also the reputation of the Made-in-Canada brand, just as the recalls of Chinese-made products damaged the brand value of Made in China. To prevent such possibilities, companies and other stakeholders of product safety in Canada need to ensure adequate systems are set up to monitor products made within our borders.

Dr. Hari Bapuji is an assistant professor of international business at Asper Business School, University of Manitoba. His research has been reported worldwide and became instrumental in understanding the complex issues involved in recalls of products made by the global supply chains of today.

The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg’s post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to thelearningcurve@freepress.mb.ca.

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