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Total Recall – modernising recall notices for 2023

10 March 2023. Published by Mamata Dutta, Partner and Andrew Martin, Associate

Historically, consumers purchased products on the high street from particular retailers or from specific consumer brands' shops. Repeat visitors in store were commonplace. However, consumers now have a swathe of buying routes available to them – whether to purchase goods in-store, through a large range of retailers or online. Whilst hugely beneficial in some respects, this can present challenges for retailers in the event of needing to initiate a product recall. How do you track down the relevant consumers in such circumstances, and to what lengths are retailers and consumer brands expected to go?

If, following a risk assessment, a problem is identified with a product that has entered the supply chain, retailers and consumer brands need to carefully consider whether to initiate a product recall. There are specific legal obligations about how a business (whether a producer or distributor) should respond to this scenario with specific guidelines for food related recalls provided by the FSA.

The UK government's Office for Product Safety & Standards ("OPSS") has previously published practical guidance for product recalls, which includes other corrective action for non-food related products. It stresses the importance of a business having a Product Safety Incident Plan to ensure that any corrective action can be carried out swiftly and without delay.  In essence, a product recall can be broken down into the following steps:

  1. Notify any relevant regulators
  2. Design and launch the recall
  3. Monitor and review the product recall
  4. Post-recall actions

This article focuses on the communication of a product recall to consumers.

What are you obliged to say?

If a business identifies that a product needs to be recalled then it should clearly communicate this need to consumers and explain how it will work.

The OPSS' code of practice provides guidance on the layout and content of a physical in-store product recall notification and social media posts and includes the following recommendations:

  • Heading – Make the heading prominent: "Important Safety Warning" or "Urgent: [Product name] Recall".
  • Clear font – Ensure the font on physical notices is clear to read.
  • Identify the product – State how the particular product is identifiable, e.g. the specific batch number or barcode that the recall relates to and where this can be found on the product. Include:
    • a photograph of the product;
    • a clear description of the hazard and any associated safety risk; and
    • details of when and where the product was available for sale.
  • Warning – Warn consumers not to use the product and for retailers not to sell it.
  • Contact information – Provide various methods of contact to enable consumers to get information about returning the product, e.g. website, email address, freephone telephone number, postal address or a physical location for returning the product if appropriate.

The guidance recommends that an A4 size notice is used, but feedback from retailers that we have seen suggests that they are routinely issuing notices which are A5 size. To be effective, it is important to ensure the relevant content is included and is easy for the consumer to follow.

Practical Tips for an effective Recall Notice

In the past, the percentage of products successfully returned after a recall notice was low. Coupled with the additional challenges of addressing recall notices where consumers have purchased products through a wide array of mediums and outlet (both in store and online), there is increased focus on the way in which recall notices are issued by retailers and consumer brands.

Social media

To address the difficulty in reaching consumers who will not necessarily visit a retailer's store or website again, and who have not purchased a product online, social media is a powerful tool. The platforms can quickly enable businesses to spread awareness of product recalls. Paid advertising on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram will ensure recalls reach a much wider audience than relying solely on physical notices placed on site.

The benefits of social media notifications include:

  • Cost benefits - Paid advertising on social media is typically much cheaper than comparable advertising on radio, television or in print.
  • Target market - Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can target advertisements by gender, relationship status, age, location, and interests.
  • Speed – The use of Direct Messaging features can allow businesses to respond to consumer queries more quickly.
  • Clarity - Use of videos as part of recall notifications to grab the attention of consumers and social media posts can be linked to a specific website to assist consumers with the recall process.
  • Broad reach - Recall notifications can be easily shared between consumers on social media which broadens to reach beyond physical notifications in store.

2. Direct consumer contact

With a growing proportion of sales made online, it is easier for retailers and consumer brands to contact those consumers directly through their email address provided. However, difficulties remain with notifying consumers who have purchased products in store. The use of direct contact to those individuals relies on those consumers providing their data either at the point of sale, through a loyalty card scheme or something similar and agreeing for their data to be used in the event of product recall. Caution should be exercised when seeking to use any consumer data in this way, to ensure compliance with GDPR and other ePrivacy laws and regulations.

BRC – Member experience of product recalls

So how are other retailers and consumer brands handling this? Some members of the British Retail Consortium (which supports PAS7100) shared their product recall experiences. Responses varied, with some retailers placing recall notices on product recall pages on their websites and others utilising direct mailing, website messages and loyalty card data where customers have bought a recalled item.

Given the breadth of retail avenues, we recommend that businesses consider adopting various channels to inform consumers about product recalls, including social media and direct contact to broaden the retailer's reach. As noted above, direct contact should be considered carefully within the context of data protection legislation.  Without communications being issued through different channels, recalls could go unnoticed, which could have significant consequences for businesses and may risk retailers and consumer brands failing to comply with their legal obligations in this area.