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'There are ticking time bombs on our store shelves'

CHOICE CEO Alan Kirkland on the campaign against unsafe products

alan kirkland sarah agar in canberra for button battery product safety
Last updated: 11 September 2019

It could be a seemingly innocuous gadget, a kitchen appliance or some fashionable new furniture. We rightly expect that the products sold to us in supermarkets, hardware stores or online meet a basic safety check. We assume that someone has tested it to see if could injure somebody or start a house fire.

But that isn't what retailers, importers and manufacturers currently have to do. Most businesses don't have to check if a product they sell is safe. They only have to act after something goes wrong. That's right. Dangerous products can end up on Australian shelves and sit there for days, months or years until a serious safety fault or design flaw is discovered in the worst circumstances – you or your loved ones getting hurt. 

And even then, companies often ignore, shift blame and play legal games until tens, hundreds or thousands of injuries occur and they can't ignore the problem anymore.

Thermomix were fined $4.6m by the Federal Court over their unsafe kitchen appliance, which caused serious burns to a number of people

One of the most recent examples of this was Thermomix, who were fined $4.6m by the Federal Court over their unsafe kitchen appliance, which caused serious burns to a number of people in their homes. 

The concerning part of this case is that the first reports of the problems started coming through to the company in 2012 but they were only picked up publicly years later, with a CHOICE complaint to the ACCC in 2016. It was over six years from first reports before Thermomix was held accountable by a court. 

This is one of the most frustrating features of being a consumer advocate in Australia. At CHOICE, our labs are set up to test products to the highest safety standards. We buy products from the shelves just like any other Australian and get our experts to thoroughly test their safety. In many cases, our modest non-profit organisation nestled in suburban Sydney puts more time, effort and care into protecting you from unsafe products than multi-billion dollar corporations.

While many manufacturers and retailers rush products onto shelves without proper checks or balances, consumer advocates and regulators are stuck waiting for something to go wrong before they can act. Particularly concerning is the lack of mandatory standards for some products for children or products with child-specific risks. An analysis of CHOICE safety tests between 2011 and 2019 found a 98% failure rate for portable cots, an 83% failure rate for strollers and a 59% failure rate for cots. 

Our modest non-profit organisation puts more time, effort and care into protecting you from unsafe products than multi-billion dollar corporations.

It's results like these that demonstrate why Australia desperately needs a General Safety Provision – a law that requires manufacturers to sell safe products in the first place. It's a law that's working in Europe and is desperately needed here in Australia. For some Australians, laws like this are too little, too late. 

For parents Andrea Shoesmith and Allison Rees, the lack of an effective and preventative law is front of mind. Both mothers lost their children to button batteries – shiny, small and lolly-sized batteries often found in basic household products such as bathroom scales, thermometers and remotes. Ingested by a child, these batteries can cause severe internal burn and result in life-changing injuries or death. 

With the most basic of design flaws, these batteries can be accessible to children within seconds. For Andrea, losing her daughter Summer in 2013 was devastating. In the time since, she's become one of the most active advocates for change. 

She told CHOICE: "It's just so disappointing that the danger still isn't taken seriously... these things are like loaded guns and they're everywhere. I feel like we're being fobbed off." 

Following the death of her child Bella in 2015, Allison also became an important advocate for change. The coroner who investigated Bella's death specifically called for a General Safety Provision, saying: "Such a law would impact on design, sourcing and supply of unsafe consumer products including button batteries and products that contain them, and incentivise their safe supply."

These parents paid the ultimate price for a system and laws that allow manufacturers to rush unsafe products onto shelves

These parents paid the ultimate price for a system and laws that allow manufacturers to rush unsafe products onto shelves, and then expects regulators, consumer advocates and victims of unsafe products and their families to fix the problems after the fact. 

Today, CHOICE, along with Andrea, Allison, experts from industry and the medical profession are in Canberra asking the Government to fix this gap in our laws. When we buy products for ourselves or our loved ones, we should be able to trust that businesses have done the absolute basics. Every day we delay these vital laws, is another day dangerous products are left on our shelves.

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