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5 product safety battles we're still fighting

CHOICE is still pushing for reforms on these five issues to protect consumers against unsafe products.

five product safety challenge
Last updated: 26 August 2020

For 60 years, CHOICE has worked towards making products safer by raising awareness of dangerous items and pushing for reforms, and we've delivered plenty of memorable product safety wins –  from the introduction of the Trade Practices Act in 1974 to the mandatory recall of Takata airbags in 2018. 

None of these victories happened overnight. In fact, many of them took years of testing, investigation and campaigning. But once we set our sights on a safety issue, we don't stop fighting until we've achieved change. 

We continue to push for reforms that will make us all safer. Here are five product safety issues we're still fighting for.

general safety provision document

1. Introduction of a general safety provision

It's reasonable to expect that the products we buy are safe. But in Australia, mandatory safety standards apply to fewer than 50 products, and there's no general law against selling unsafe products. 

Other comparable countries such as the UK have general safety provision laws that state that businesses cannot supply a product unless it's safe. 

"The current system is slow, outdated and reactive," says Amy Pereira, CHOICE campaigns and policy advisor. "It's over-reliant on recalls and we know that in many instances recalls are conducted sometimes only after harm has already been caused. 

"A general safety provision in the law will stop Australian homes from being used as test labs for unsafe products."

The introduction of a general safety provision has been a campaign priority for CHOICE for some time now and the ACCC is also continuing to work on this issue. 

baby sleeper bouncer bassinette

2. Unsafe baby sleeping products 

Red Nose Australia, a national charity dedicated to saving the lives of babies during pregnancy, infancy and childhood, advises that a safe sleep surface for a baby is one that is both firm and flat with safe bedding (no bulky or loose blankets, head coverings, toys or cot bumpers). Yet parents are being sold unsafe sleep products that don't meet these simple criteria. 

Inclined sleepers such as  the Kids2 rocking sleepers have a soft, sloped surface that can cause suffocation. They were recalled in Australia after being linked to 73 infant deaths in the US, but a CHOICE investigation earlier this year discovered they're still available on secondhand marketplaces such as eBay and Gumtree.  

We've also warned parents against using soft, padded sleep surfaces  such as sleep pods and positioners, which pose a suffocation risk and have been linked to 12 deaths in the US. Yet they're still on sale in Australian stores. 

"We're fighting to stop unsafe infant products from getting onto the market in the first place," says Pereira. "We'd like to see them properly regulated through mandatory standards."

button batteries

3. Dangers of button batteries

Every week in Australia, about 20 children arrive at hospital emergency departments after suspectedly swallowing button batteries. These small, shiny batteries can get stuck on the way to the stomach, causing severe internal burning and injury. 

More than 60 children have died worldwide – including two in Australia – after swallowing button batteries, and many more have been left with serious injuries. Despite the danger they pose, a CHOICE investigation found that 10 in 17 common household products had easily accessible button batteries, including a remote control and kitchen scales. 

"CHOICE is calling on the government to introduce a mandatory standard for button batteries and products containing them," says Pereira. "This is the only way to reduce the serious and irreversible risk that these products pose to young children."

In 2019 the ACCC formed a button battery taskforce, thanks in part to work from parent advocates such as Allison Rees, and are due to make their final recommendation later this year. In the meantime, we'll continue to spread awareness of the potential dangers of this everyday household item.

The importance of product safety
poor recall process

4. Poor product recall process

It may come as a surprise, but in Australia almost all product recalls are voluntary.

This means that the company behind a defective item is responsible for spreading the message about the dangers of its own product. This raises the risk that the company will prioritise its reputation over consumer safety, leaving many people unaware that their product has been recalled.

Compulsory recalls, which are enforced by the ACCC, are very rare. The only compulsory recall in the past 10 years was that of Takata airbags and was made compulsory only after a CHOICE investigation revealed that voluntary recall efforts had stalled – some manufacturers had repaired as little as 11–12% of affected cars. 

Since the ACCC took over, there has been clear, powerful and consistent messaging. But there are still about 180,000 vehicles out there with defective Takata airbags.

Pereira says a general safety provision is the best way to address our broken recall system. 

"A general safety provision would require manufacturers to adopt a more proactive approach to ensuring the safety of their products before they go on sale," she says. "We hope this would mean fewer recalls and fewer unsafe products in the market."

volunteer hands

5. Mandatory vs voluntary standards

Products with mandatory standards are legally required to meet a minimum level of safety But products with voluntary standards only can be sold regardless of whether or not they meet the recommended safety criteria. 

Our product testers have noticed many potentially dangerous products that have voluntary rather than mandatory standards. For example, while cots have a mandatory standard, cot mattresses have only a voluntary one, and bassinets have no Australian standard at all. This means manufacturers are able to sell baby sleep surfaces (and many other children's products) that don't meet any safety standards.

Chris Barnes, CHOICE's category manager for household products, says advocating for stronger safety regulations for children's products has long been a priority for the organisation.

"Our expert testers sit on standards committees to advocate for better safety standards for potentially dangerous products," he says. "For example, we have been calling for the firmness test on cot mattresses to be made mandatory for years."

We think businesses should do more to ensure their products are safe before they go on sale, and we'll keep on fighting for reforms to safety regulations.

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Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.