A Marketplace investigation discovered a variety of recalled baby products for sale, raising serious questions about the effectiveness of the system meant to protect the public from products with dangerous flaws.
Over a period of two weeks, Marketplace purchased three different products in store and online after they'd been recalled by the manufacturer days, weeks and even months earlier.
The items included a rattle and stackable rings found to be potential choking hazards, and building blocks with magnets that could prove deadly if swallowed.
"I think that's a real problem," said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a non-profit based out of Chicago that was founded in 1998 after a toddler was killed in a crib collapse. The child's parents were unaware the crib had been recalled five years earlier.
Most manufacturers and retailers have a system in place for when there's a recall, but in the case of the products Marketplace found, she says those systems clearly failed.
"Our goal should be to have all recalled products off the market, out of homes, out of use," she said. "A recall is only effective if that happens."
Health Canada has the authority to initiate a recall order, but the agency says it's most often done voluntarily by a product's manufacturer.
Once a recall order is issued, no products should remain on store shelves or for sale online. It's the manufacturer's responsibility, or the importer's in some cases, to communicate with retailers so they know to stop selling the product immediately.
The Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, which came into effect in 2011, made it illegal to knowingly advertise and sell a product that's been recalled. The law also applies to those selling new or used products in second-hand markets like eBay.
Violating the act carries maximum fines of $5 million and up to 24 months in jail. But only one company has been fined for violating a recall order since the law came into effect.
So what went wrong with the recalls for the rattle, rings and blocks Marketplace was able to purchase? Why were the products still on the market despite the risk they pose to children?
Marketplace reached out to the manufacturers, retailers and eBay sellers involved, as well as Health Canada, to try to find out.
Here's what they had to say:
- VTech said it notified retailers on Nov. 17 about the recall, so the product should have been pulled off shelves. "We can always do more, but we have to rely on the retailer ... generally they're pretty responsive," VTech president Gordon Chow said. "If everything is done within a week, it's pretty damn good."
- Clinty Gaudry, vice-president of marketing for Toys "R" Us Canada, said in a statement that the company had removed all the recalled rattles with date codes VT 5353 to VT 7095. According to Health Canada, Toys "R" Us told the agency it was made aware of the recall on Nov. 20 and removed the recalled product the same day.
This is a photo of the rattle Marketplace purchased in Pickering, Ont., on the evening of Nov. 20 with a recalled date code.
- When Marketplace told Health Canada about the purchase, the agency emailed this response: "It is possible that there may be a short delay between the responsible company's issuing a recall notice and the product's being removed from store shelves at the retail level."
- eBay.com seller thm37 told Marketplace: "We are not aware of any recall. We would certainly not offer for sale any recall item. I believe eBay would notify us of any recall."
- eBay said it requires its sellers to "follow all regulations related to product safety," and that it takes "proactive measures," including receiving direct reports from the regulator and sending messages to users about specific recalls. It also says it uses filters and manually reviews its site to identify potentially recalled or dangerous products.
- Hallmark didn't respond to Marketplace's request for comment.
- The blocks were supposed to be sold exclusively on Amazon, but were listed by various resellers on eBay.
- The day Marketplace notified eBay that it had purchased a recalled set of blocks, the sale was cancelled and the other listings were taken down.
- PlayMaty, the manufacturer, said it didn't sell its product on eBay.ca and never authorized anybody else to do so.
- The eBay.ca seller, Allfromgreece, didn't respond to Marketplace's request for comment.
- eBay said it was in touch with Health Canada, added the product to its list of recalled items, and is "putting the proper filters in place."
Health Canada said in an email it cannot prevent companies and third-party sellers that operate outside Canada from advertising products to Canadians. The statement did say Health Canada contacted eBay.ca about the PlayMaty listing.
The agency wouldn't say whether any of the retailers or manufacturers connected to the products Marketplace purchased violated the product safety act, or whether any fines had been issued.
'You have to do the due diligence'
During the course of the investigation, Marketplace also heard from consumers who discovered they'd purchased recalled children's products.
Among them were Shirine Eltaher and Les O'Reilly, who are expecting a baby girl in early January.
The Ontario couple recently bought a Britax B-Safe 35 Infant Slate Strie Car Seat that a third-party seller had listed on Amazon.
Eltaher had previously received a second-hand stroller only to discover it had two recalled parts. So as soon as her car seat arrived, she looked up the model number online — which wasn't included in the Amazon sale listing — to be sure it was safe.
"Sure enough, it's under recall," she said. "I was like, 'Well, if I had known this, I wouldn't have bought that particular model from Amazon."
Turns out the car seat has a defective chest clip that could break off and create a choking hazard. The model had been recalled more than four months earlier.
"It's not written on the box, it's not advertised anywhere. You have to do the due diligence to actually find the information, and many people don't, which is really sad," she said. "There are millions of people buying these products, do they even know that there's an issue?"
Amazon spokesperson Kaan Yalkin told Marketplace the "product is no longer for sale at Amazon," and said the company "constantly monitors many government websites to become aware of and take action on recalls."
Eltaher and O'Reilly ordered the "remedy kit" — a new clip for the car seat — but it wasn't scheduled to arrive until after their baby's due date so they decided to return the car seat.
Based on Marketplace's findings and their own experience, the couple wonders whether Canada's recall system actually works.
"If people break laws, they get fined," O'Reilly said. "There should be a financial impact on [companies] for breaking the law."