Product Recall Trends: An Ounce of Prevention

Jude Holmes
By Jude Holmes | May 29, 2012
Client Solution Engineer

What is the greatest threat to the American manufacturer? The great recession? Close, but not quite. Corporate espionage? Save it for the movies. Obamacare? Let’s not go there.

A product recall can make every other problem seem trivial. The folks at Toyota know something about that. The 2009-2010 unintended sudden acceleration recall affected 4.3 million vehicles and immeasurably damaged Toyota’s reputation for quality and safety.

Along with the Toyota recall, Popular Mechanics listed the most notorious automotive recalls of all time. In no particular order, they are:

  • 1991 - 2001 Ford Explorer. A top-heavy design meant the best-selling SUV of the 90’s could lose control during emergency situations. Many were equipped with Firestone tires with faulty tread, which didn’t help. Recall year: 2001.
  • 1971 – 1976 Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat. From the spontaneous combustion file, Pintos (and their counterpart, Bobcats) had to have plastic heat shields installed to protect the gas tanks and well, let’s be honest, there were a lot of things wrong with the Pinto. Recall Year: 1978.
  • 1980-1982 General Motors X-Cars. The small car line that included the Skylark, Citation, Omega and Phoenix was recalled a total of nine times….that's right, nine times. With problems ranging from busted coil springs to detached steering gear and faulty fuel lines, "X-Cars" gave the Amish another reason to stick with the horse and buggy. Recall year: Various.
  • 1978-1983 Audi 5000. Anytime 60 Minutes is running a story that shows your product accelerating wildly out of control you’ve got a bad problem that is only going to get worse. Audi didn’t begin to regain footing in the North American market until the 1996 A4. Recall years: 1982 to 1987.
  • 1976 Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare. A case study in how ordinary products can cause extraordinary problems. In 1976, if you owned an Aspen and were waiting in one of those lines to fill up on gas, you were lucky, it meant your car was running. Recall years: 1976 and 1977.

The fact that you most likely remember or have heard of these recalls means that most consumers remember them as well. These examples serve as a strong reminder of why companies want to avoid a recall – they are expensive, time consuming and they affect customers’ perceptions of product quality.

Obviously, the automotive industry isn’t the only industry that has recalls. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website lists the most recent top consumer product recalls, all of which involve a safety risk to children: MEGA Brands Magnetic Toys, Kolcraft Play Yards, Delta Cribs (Spring Peg), MagnaMan Figures, Delta Cribs (Safety Peg), and Stork Craft Cribs.

A visit to the Food and Drug Administration website ( lists recent recalls and shows that allergen-related recalls are on the rise. The manufacturers on this list include companies large and small, illustrating that no one is safe from a recall.

How Does a Company Prevent a Recall?

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" – Ben Franklin.

As hard as a manufacturer tries, a product recall may not be prevented 100% of the time. The following is a list of the most popular ways to defend against a recall:

  1. Learn from the issues that are affecting your peers. Could you have a recall for the same reasons they are? Is there a system or policy you could put in place to help prevent it?
  2. Implement a strong supplier quality management system that has clear and concise product specifications, clear expectations for delivery of the product, and a strong tracking system. The best systems can trace the product from raw materials to finished product, is capable of alarming when out of specification conditions occur, and can automate data collection where possible to reduce human factor variance.
  3. Monitor quality on the floor (in-process) – Timely inspection of product as it’s being made and timely response when an event occurs.
  4. Action Plans and Accountability – When an event occurs, what is the next step and who is responsible? Identify who in your company is to be notified and what actions need to be taken. Investigate the root cause for the event and employ corrective and/or preventive actions (CAPA) so they don’t occur again.
  5. Effectiveness – Check your system to ensure that the corrective and/or preventive actions put in place are effective.
Be Prepared

It takes hard work and diligence to maintain a good system and nobody is perfect. So as the Boy Scout motto says, "be prepared". Have a good action plan in place in the unlikely and unfortunate event that your company is required to endure a product recall.   It is up to your team to stay current with recent trends, put plans in place to help you react quickly and appropriately, and review these plans regularly to ensure they are enforced and relevant. Remember, having a major recall doesn’t just affect the product being recalled, it can affect consumers’ perceptions of your products and your company, and those can have lasting consequences.

Stay Informed

There are many resources available on the internet and each industry will have its own governing bodies or sources for recall information. Some helpful resources can be found below:

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