Australian consumers need better product safety laws

Australia’s product safety laws are poor in comparison to some other developed nations around the world, and unfortunately this means that there are 6.6 million unsafe products currently under voluntary recall that have been allowed to remain in Australian homes according the ACCC. There are around 780 deaths and around 52,000 injuries annually in Australia due to using unsafe products.

These unsafe products simply should have been stopped before they were even available for Australians to buy. What is needed now is government action to monitor how these unsafe products are reaching so many consumers and to introduce legislation to protect us.

Consumer advocacy group, Choice has filed a complaint to the Treasury in which it described the country’s safety laws as “reactive”, “not fit for the future” and “unacceptable”. Choice wants new, proactive safety laws so unsafe products are not sold in the market.

Most Australians would be blissfully unaware that there is no obligation to ensure the safety of products before they are sold and there is not much a manufacturer has to do before putting products on our shelves. There should be legislation in place that requires basic safety checks at a minimum to reduce the number of accidents associated with unsafe products here.

Australia and New Zealand are well covered in terms of the safety standards and regulation of the food and beverage sector, with the Food Standard Code in place. However, there are many other industries for whom product safety is just as important, including medicines, toys, cosmetics, electronics, automotive and plastics. Some industries such as electronics and baby equipment have standards in place but there are many loopholes with so many products that can cause injury and death.

Recalls on the rise

The ACCC is notified of about 650 consumer product recalls annually, which is the highest rate in the world according to our GDP. The number of product recalls has tripled since 1998. Unfortunately, only about half of affected products are returned to sellers. Excluding motor vehicle recalls, this amounts to about 1.7 million recalled products remaining in people’s homes, or almost one in four Australian households exposed to potential hazards.

Whilst Australian businesses are encouraged to ensure compliance with the Competition and Consumer Act, there is an urgent need for the government to strengthen the Australian Consumer Law by requiring businesses to comply with a “new safety duty”, which would mean businesses must take reasonable steps to ensure the products they sell are not unsafe.

The only protection we currently have in place here in Australia is reactive, which means that product recalls continue to skyrocket, and millions of unsafe products remain in people’s possession without them being aware of the risks they are taking.

The ACCC is part of a global OECD campaign on product recalls raising awareness of the importance of making sure recalled products are removed from homes. Australian consumers are being urged to sign up to the Product Safety Australia website to receive product recall alerts and to register their products under warranty with manufacturers online, to ensure they receive information straight away if a product is recalled.

Toys and products for babies and children accounted for almost one in three safety recalls monitored by the ACCC. It is important that people sign up to ACCC product safety alerts and register products they buy with manufacturers, so they stay informed about recalls and can act to remove unsafe products from their homes.

Legislation around the world

What is needed here is legislation that requires businesses to ensure the safety of their products before they enter the market so we can protect Australian consumers.

In the US, businesses must comply with the requirements for risk-based preventative controls mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, amongst many other pieces of legislation.

In the United Kingdom, manufacturers, importers, or distributors are responsible for making sure that all of their products are safe for consumers to use. Businesses could face action if a product is found to be unsafe or causes harm to consumers, including legal action. The General Product Safety Regulations 2005 (GPSR) require all products to be safe in their normal or reasonably foreseeable usage and enforcement authorities have powers to take appropriate action when this obligation is not met.

Business operating within the European Union need to comply with RAPEX: European Consumers Product Safety and Market Surveillance Regulations.

Advancing consumer safety, quality, and sustainability

In the absence of product safety legislation here, manufacturers and suppliers need to ensure they are compliant with the current legislation for their industry, whilst also being cognisant that this consumer protection is coming.

In the meantime, the responsibility is with the manufacturers and when things do go wrong, it is the way they respond to an issue that can really make all the difference. Depending on what they produce, this could amount to savings lives and rebounding from the situation or putting lives at risk and losing a brand or business.

It is crucial that the problem product is isolated, and data about the origins; builds; and customer destinations of products is visible immediately — a good ERP system with an integrated traceability system will also allow businesses to take immediate steps to minimise the impact of a product recall. As well as saving lives, it will help them to mitigate reputational damage and the associated financial impact. 

To learn more about how you can develop a failsafe product recall plan, you can download the free webinar hosted by Manufacturers’ Monthly called ‘Managing Traceability’.