When the CPSC initiates the recall of a product, it generally persuades the manufacturer to notify retailers that the product can no longer be sold and to issue a joint press release specifying why the product has been recalled and what people who own it should do (for example, stop using it and request further instructions from the company). The CPSC sends these press releases to television stations, magazines, and newspapers, and also makes them available on its Web site, at www.cpsc.gov (the commission's hotline phone number is 800-638-2772).
Manufacturers know that strongly worded, alarming press releases are likely to attract reporters' attention. And they know that well-publicized recalls can invite product-liability suits, damage their corporate image, and reduce the value of their stock. The language used in recall press releases is negotiated at highly secretive meetings between CPSC staff members and manufacturers' lawyers, product engineers, and public-relations experts. "The manufacturer wants to minimize the hazards, and the CPSC wants to maximize them," says Bengt Lager, whose company, Regal Lager, is the exclusive U.S. distributor of Baby Bjorn products. Manufacturers try to avoid press-release headlines that announce a straight "recall,"because they fear that consumers will think the product must be returned. Instead a "recall to repair" will instruct customers to get in touch with the company for a free repair kit. A recall notice in 1995 for the Playskool 1-2-3 high chair (cracked joints sometimes caused the chair to collapse) was headlined "Recall to Repair."In 1997 a press release issued for some models of the same product (this time the restraint bar broke) was headlined "Recall to Repair Restraint Bar,"and mentioned nothing about the weak joints. (Hasbro, the owner of the Playskool brand, received at least 4,500 consumer complaints before the chair was recalled the first time.)Thus it is not surprising that these press releases are not always considered newsworthy.
On the afternoon of May 12, 1998, in Chicago, a sixteen-month-old, Danny Keysar , was put down for a nap in a Playskool Travel-Lite portable crib by his day-care provider, Anna. When Anna checked on Danny a little while later, she found that the crib had collapsed while he was standing, trapping his neck in the V of its folded rails. Danny was no longer breathing. Though the toddler weighed only twenty-five pounds, the rails collapsed under his weight, folding shut at the center hinges.
Anna had been caring for the child in her home for ten months, and as a licensed day-care provider, she was required to undergo periodic safety inspections. Illinois inspectors had been to the home just eight days before the incident occurred. After Danny's funeral a newspaper reporter discovered that his death was not an isolated incident: four other children had died in Playskool Travel-Lite cribs. (One other child died three months later.) The government had deemed the Travel-Lite dangerous and had ordered it off the market five years earlier, in a product recall. But it was not the only portable crib that had been recalled. From 1993 to 1997 more than 1.5 million portable cribs with a similar design (center hinges on the top rails)—marketed by other companies whose names parents associate with good products for children, such as Baby Trend , Century Products , and Evenflo —were recalled (see the CPSC Web site for model numbers). In 1991 an eleven-month-old in Los Angeles became the first baby known to have died in one of these cribs, and Danny is believed to have been the twelfth.
After Danny died, his parents, Linda Ginzel and Boaz Keysar (both professors at the University of Chicago), founded Kids in Danger (www.kidsindanger.org), a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to teaching parents how to protect their children from unsafe products. Ginzel and Keysar initiated and championed the Children's Product Safety Act , which was signed into law in August of last year by the governor of Illinois, George Ryan. The law makes it illegal to sell or lease a children's product that has been recalled, and ensures that recalled products are not used in licensed day-care facilities. Hailed as model legislation by the CPSC, the law was enacted in Michigan last June.