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  • A Survival Map in the Age of Product Recalls

    If 2007 was the Year of the Recall, welcome to the Decade of the Recall.

    Four years ago, major crises overtook the spinach, toy, and pet food industries. The sheer breadth of consumer products affected was unsettling while, with two of those recalls, a China syndrome exacerbated public anxiety.

    Today, consumers are likely no less apprehensive even without such front-page assaults on their sense of marketplace security. Now, it is the palpable volume of recalls – the seemingly interminable progression of one recall after another on a regular basis – that undermines public confidence and motivates regulators to steadily increase their oversight. In turn, such stepped-up oversight only uncovers more problems leading to more recalls.

    I use the word “palpable” because thus far that’s all it’s been. Without combing through and attempting to aggregate the massive data available from the regulatory agencies, we cannot really know the scope of affected products on an industry-by-industry basis or whether there actually are significant increases in recall numbers.

    Were we to grasp those overlying trend lines, both private companies and the regulators themselves could begin to do some very useful planning. Private sector resources could be better allocated to address specific problem areas while public sector stewards might likewise focus their regulatory attentions more efficiently. It’s all about planning for need, which you cannot do by relying on guesswork to assess the extent or severity of current and future problems.

    Last week, Stericycle ExpertRECALLTM , which specializes in managing recalls for private industry, took a welcome step in this direction by publishing its first quarterly ExpertRECALLTM Index. So far it is the only survey we know of to quantify and cogently aggregate product recall trends on what will be an ongoing basis. The findings are based on reports by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

    During the second quarter, for example, U.S. food recalls increased while consumer-product recalls were down. At the macro level, this trend makes sense during a recession, since there’s a correlation between the volume of goods and services on the market and the likelihood of safety problems. People are typically still eating as much as before the financial crisis. By contrast, retailers woefully confirm that economic adversity has slowed consumer purchase of many nice-to-have items.

    For the food industry, the Index confirms an importantly practicable fact. Undeclared allergens caused more than 45% of the food recalls, exceeding the total number caused by Salmonella, Botulism, and Listeria combined. The data presumably confirms where food industry leaders should focus additional resources (without, of course, slackening oversight of potential pathogen-related problems).

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