Buyer beware in Christmas shopping frenzy

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 17 December 2019

Product recalls continue to skyrocket in Australia so buyer beware in Christmas rush.

As Victorians hit the shops and their keyboards in the pre-Christmas gift-buying rush, it’s sobering to learn that every day two Australians die and another 145 are injured due to unsafe products sold legally over the counter or online.

While most of us assume that items bought from a known retailer will be safe to use, in fact there are no laws to ensure retailers sell safe products. 

Baby in walker unplugging electric cord from sockett

Toys and products for babies or children account for a third of the annual 650 consumer product recalls, where authorities advise buyers the products are unsafe and should be returned to the seller.

As well as the frequently reported choking hazard posed to children by common button batteries, one child every year in Australia is killed by toppling furniture or televisions. Some items not subject to recalls still pose safety risks, such as a mermaid tail which effectively binds a child’s legs together reducing their ability to swim, according to safety experts. 

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s commissioner Sarah Court says Australians could be at risk of injuries because of recalled unsafe products.

She says only about half of recalled products are returned to sellers, leaving about 1.7 million unsafe consumer products in homes and one in four Australian households exposed to potential hazards.

“Many people would be surprised to learn there is currently no law that requires businesses not to sell unsafe products,” Sarah says.

The ACCC wants Australian consumer law changed to include a new “safety duty” requiring businesses to take “reasonable steps” to ensure products are safe.

 “We believe prevention is better than cure,” says Sarah, “and that legally requiring businesses to take steps to ensure the safety of their products before they enter the market is needed to protect Australian consumers.”

She says consumers should sign up to the Product Safety Australia website to receive product recall alerts. People can register products with manufacturers to ensure they receive information straight away if a product is recalled.

Product recalls continue to skyrocket in Australia and the community is unaware of how little manufacturers have to do before putting products on shelves.

Australian consumer advocacy group Choice supports new laws that would make selling unsafe products illegal. Choice product safety campaigner Amy Pereira says the group has put forward a submission to the federal government calling for a law to make businesses ensure products they sell are safe.

“This means that products would be tested against national or international standards, industry codes and would meet consumer expectations of safety,” she says.

She says a Choice survey found 93 per cent of Australians mistakenly believe existing laws protect them against unsafe products. This creates a dangerous situation where people assume more has been done to check the safety of products before they’re available in shops or online, she says.

“Australians are in the dark when it comes to product safety,” Amy says. “Product recalls continue to skyrocket in Australia and the community is unaware of how little manufacturers have to do before putting products on shelves.” 

She says there is confusion over “mandatory safety standards”, which specify minimum safety requirements that products must meet before they can be sold, because people assume these standards apply to many products.

They [mandatory safety standards] do not apply to all products. In many cases, there are voluntary standards that businesses can choose to comply with, but it is not compulsory.”

Amy says Australia’s product safety laws are “shamefully weak”. “Australia has been let down by successive governments over the last two decades who have allowed unsafe products to flood into our homes,” she says.

“Product recalls have tripled since 1998 – that’s millions of unsafe products that should have been stopped before they got to shelves, now in people’s homes.”

CHOICE’s five most dangerous children’s products are:

  1. Button batteries. About 20 children across Australia go to hospital after swallowing these batteries, which can be fatal.
  2. Bunk beds. Insufficient guardrails and unsafe gaps can cause falls, injured limbs and even strangulation or accidental hanging.
  3. Cots. Falls are common, but less common and more dangerous is strangulation by clothing snagged on the cot. 
  4. Baby walkers. Children falling down stairs or getting access to hazards like ovens and benchtops.
  5. Vaporisers. Hot steam can cause third-degree burns while essential oils can cause poisoning.

The ACCC’s top tips for gift buying

  • Check if any gifts you give or receive have been recalled
  • Ensure gifts for youngsters are age-appropriate and don’t pose such risks as being  choking hazards
  • Read all warning labels and follow safety instructions
  • Avoid giving children under six anything containing button batteries and check that batteries are securely fixed.