'Recall' or 'repair'? Advocates question Ikea action

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Jaquelyn and Curren Collas

When Ikea and federal regulators announced last week that millions of the company's dressers, if not properly secured, could pose a serious risk to children, they took pains to call it "a repair program" - not a recall.

But in the bureaucratic parlance of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a repair program is a recall.

The word choice has riled safety advocates and former regulators, who say the decision goes beyond semantics. A recall gets more attention from consumers, they say, and avoiding the word deliberately downplays the danger of a product that has killed two toddlers, including a 2-year-old from West Chester.

"The words mean something," said Pamela Gilbert, executive director of the commission in the 1990s. "This furniture can tip over and kill your kid. And the word repair does not convey the hazard and the potential tragedy."

By calling it a repair program, Ikea also avoided being added to the safety commission's online database of product recalls and its annual recall report to Congress.

The decision on how to alert the public and what to say about 27 million dressers that could tumble forward if not attached to the wall came after months of negotiations between the commission and the Swedish home furnishings giant.

Neither Ikea nor the agency would discuss the negotiations that led to the language in their joint announcement. Scott Wolfson, the commission's spokesman, said federal law bars both from elaborating beyond their news release.

Wolfson did say the agency was focused on improving safety while reaching an agreement quickly.

An Ikea spokeswoman repeated only that the program is not a recall, noting that the repair kits the company has agreed to send customers who bought the dressers are designed to be used if they had not attached the tip restraints that come with the units.

Safety advocates say that is one of the biggest hurdles in combating the growing danger of furniture tip-overs: Many manufacturers include restraints or wall anchors when they sell a unit, but consumers don't comprehend the threat and don't install them. That's why advocates say manufacturers should make furniture more stable on its own, and help raise awareness of the risk.

Tip-overs - most commonly from unsecured dressers and televisions - lead to 38,000 emergency room visits each year, according to the safety commission. Deaths are increasing, some experts believe in part because consumers buying flat-screen televisions have placed old sets on unsuitable furniture, such as dressers, causing a volatile mix.

Gilbert, the former safety commission executive director, said it was possible that Ikea did not want to use recall for liability reasons.

"If you admit you're doing a recall, then as a company you're admitting you have a dangerous product on the market," Gilbert said.

Ikea faces at least one lawsuit over the issue, filed in Philadelphia by the mother of Curren Collas, the West Chester toddler who died last year when crushed by his toppled Ikea dresser. Collas' lawsuit contends that the unit, part of Ikea's popular Malm line, was defective.

Four months after Curren's death, a 23-month-old boy in Snohomish, Wash., died after becoming trapped beneath a three-drawer Malm dresser.

Ikea cited both deaths when it announced its repair program last week.

The wording caused early confusion in news reports. Some news outlets described it as a recall, others did not. Some that first called it a recall later retracted that term at Ikea's request.

The safety commission defines "repair programs" as a type of recall. According to its own data, repair programs are among the most common kind of recall. (Of 30 products recalled in July, 12 required repairs. not for the affected product to be returned or the consumer to be reimbursed.)

As with its other recalls, Ikea will be required to regularly report to the agency how many consumers acted on the announcement and asked for the repair kits. Ikea spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss said the demand since last week's announcement had been "quite robust," but would not quantify it.

In recent years, the safety commission has been adamant about calling all corrective actions recalls, according to David Schmeltzer, a former director of compliance who worked there from 1973 to 1997 and now serves as a consultant to companies with products under scrutiny.

Schmeltzer said he would advise clients not to fight the label, because recall is typically not up for negotiation when dealing with regulators. "If my client felt it was very important, I would try," he said. "But frankly, I'd tell them up front I don't think I could convince the agency to call it anything other than a recall."

Ikea's recall was initially listed on the commission's recall website and saferproducts.gov - both resources for consumers. But it was removed from both by the CPSC after a few hours. Wolfson, the agency spokesman, said it was not listed there to "respect the agreement with the company."

It also is not listed on Ikea's own recall website.

Brian Patterson, a consultant who helps companies manage recalls, said that is a problem because most consumers seeking information will look for it online and will have to "take an extra jump to figure out what they need to do to participate in the program."

Patterson said Ikea had been proactive in spreading news of its repair program through Facebook, but noted that nearly a week after it began, it still had not posted the announcement to its main Twitter feed, which has 350,000 followers. (It posted it on a less-used company Twitter account, with about 4,000 followers.)

Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America called the strategy "strange" and said that by not using recall or sharing the message often on social media, Ikea was failing to communicate clearly with consumers.

Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a nonprofit that tracks product safety, said advocates already face an uphill battle getting consumers to heed recalls. In May, her organization reported that just 14 percent of all children's products recalled in 2013 had been corrected or destroyed.

Cowles said many consumers see recall as a hazard that requires action. If people with Ikea dressers do not take a "safety program" as seriously and tether their furniture, she said, injuries will rise.

"There have been the two deaths. We know it can happen," Cowles said. "If not using that trigger word - recall - means someone misses this, does not pay attention to this, does not follow up on it, then the outcome can be injury or death."


tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730 @TriciaNadolny