Defective goalie mask cage: Is there a way to improve the recall system?

The recall for Bauer goalie masks and cages went out early this spring, but the Akerman family of Bay Roberts, N.L., say they weren't aware of it.

Had they known about it, they say, there's no way their son Riley would have been wearing the high-priced head protection that shattered under the force of a flying puck and ended up threatening the sight in the 18-year-old's left eye.

The sports equipment manufacturer says it followed all the "regulatory guidance" it needed for the recall, but the Akermans' experience reflects the difficulty in ensuring, even in today's world of constant and instant communication, that everyone who needs to know about a recall does.

"It's very difficult for consumers to be aware of all the recalls out there," says Sylvain Charlebois, an associate professor in the University of Guelph's marketing and consumer studies department.

Some recalls are more high-profile than others. About 1.5 million Canadian vehicles are listed in connection with the Takata airbag recall.

But for other products, a recall may just get a quick mention on a nightly TV newscast.

"We either forget about it or we often don't necessarily know for sure if we actually own or have purchased the product in the first place," says Charlebois, whose areas of expertise include food safety recalls.

Or maybe consumers didn't know about a recall at all. They don't regularly search databases of recalls or there is no way for the manufacturer to get directly in touch with them.

Vagaries of human nature

For products that aren't registered after purchase, there's no way for a manufacturer to notify individual consumers of a recall. And even if products can be registered, there's no guarantee every consumer would do that.

"There is a challenge there," says Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada.

"Consumers could be very proactive and register everything, but they don't, and so part of the challenge of consumer protection is also recognizing the realities of human nature."

Businesses, he says, know that people don't want to be overloaded with information and are busy. Warranty cards get tossed in drawers and people abandon the follow-up paperwork.

So the question becomes, Whitehurst suggests, whether registration becomes a regular part of the purchasing process. And would it make sense for every product out there? Probably not.

But for products sold with the intention of providing safety, "there's probably a greater argument in that space that these products should be registered," says Whitehurst.

The ability for products to be registered is improving, Whitehurst says. More manufacturers are seeing virtue in staying connected with consumers who buy their products.

But consumers may be skeptical that registration is only a way to ensure they end up receiving more junk mail in their inbox. (Federal anti-spam legislation that came into effect nearly one year ago was intended to offer consumers protection from that.)

Privacy concerns

There are also concerns around privacy for consumers if they become more closely connected with whomever sold them a product.

"Personally I think society is going to grapple with that and we're going to find ways for that to happen," says Whitehurst.

There are ways for consumers to track recalls. A quick search on a Health Canada web page quickly leads to the Bauer recall of March 31, the same day Health Canada tweeted a link to the recall.

"Health Canada continually looks for ways to modernize our approach on how the hazards posed by consumer products are communicated to Canadians," the department said Thursday in an email.

The department also encourages Canadians to routinely check the Healthy Canadians website and sign up for notices that are sent when recalls are posted.

Charlebois sees the potential for consumer support extending beyond the actions of any one manufacturer.

He points to the experience around the Thomas the Tank Engine toy recall of 2007. Consumers received gift certificates to buy products at Toys "R" Us, he says, a completely separate company from the toy manufacturer.

"When I saw that, I thought, 'Wow, this is impressive,' " says Charlebois. "You now see a supply chain really serving a consumer in need because the consumer just realized it bought a flawed product. I think that's the future."

Charlebois also sees the need to "figure out a way to make sure channels are developed" so consumers get all the information they need about products.

Whitehurst says there's a "healthy body of literature from consumer groups" suggesting a need for greater support for those groups. But he doesn't look to any one source for that support.

"There's not one responsibility for this. There actually needs to be diverse responsibility so that the role of consumers and consumer representatives in these processes can actually be independent."

As much as consumer groups are able to do for consumers, there's no sense they will ever become obsolete.

"Products are going fail," says Whitehurst.

"There are very few safety products that are going to take away all risk. It's not going to be a risk-free world. But there's no reason when a risk is identified that people should continue to be exposed to an identified risk."

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