Across the store, “safety” has become one of the biggest buzzwords of 2008.
It's been well documented in the food areas, with last month's massive beef recall being only the most recent incident. Last year, pet food containing melamine raised a huge furor and changed consumer buying habits, in many cases, permanently.
In nonfood areas, the toy business has been hit hard over concerns about lead coatings and the plasticizers known as phthalates. Compact fluorescent bulbs are heralded for their energy savings, but contain toxic mercury — they may last longer and consume less electricity than traditional bulbs, but disposing of them properly could become challenging. There also have been issues with toothpaste and private-label acetaminophen.
Even the heavily regulated pharmacy area has not been immune of late. The Food and Drug Administration last month reported that the blood thinner heparin, made by Baxter Healthcare Corp., Deerfield, Ill., has been linked to serious allergic reactions and low blood pressure by those taking high doses. Four deaths have been reported, and the FDA said Baxter has temporarily stopped making multiple-dose vials of heparin, which is injected.
The problem apparently stems from a Chinese plant that supplies most of the drug's main ingredient. This has focused the attention of the FDA and manufacturers on pharmaceutical ingredients imported from China, and caused the agency in that nation charged with drug safety to say that it is the responsibility of the country doing the importing to check for problems.
Meanwhile, the Toy Industry Association, New York, reported at last month's Toy Fair that it has proposed a Toy Safety Assurance Program for testing and safety verification (see story, Page 31). Among the central components of the program: design hazard analysis, auditing manufacturing process controls, and product safety testing. It was published by the American National Standards Institute, Washington, on Feb. 22, and a public comment period will continue until March 24.
“What we are proposing is an industrywide initiative that would ensure that these measures are adopted for all toy products to be sold in the U.S. market, and to restore the confidence of American consumers in the safety of toys,” said Carter Keithley, president of the association.
Could it be that the lowly toy industry has set a precedent that others, including the mighty pharmaceutical business, could follow? Perhaps. The FDA has stepped up the number of drug safety warnings it has been sending out, and has plans for more oversight of approved medicines, but that is only part of the solution.
All that is at a level which retailers should have an interest in, but ingredients and manufacturing processes are not their direct problem, aside from private label. They have little or no legal responsibility — unless they keep selling recalled products — and they are usually reimbursed for such returned items. However, they are the ones who meet the consumers day after day at store level, and their names are tarnished if the problem involves a store brand, even if a supplier takes responsibility.
Supermarkets need to have their own action plan ready to immediately pull product and communicate with their customers. Websites and email lists are great tools for this, but cannot replace personal interaction.