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July 2015

[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a sixth Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on harmonising consumer protection law.]

1. Introduction

Recalling or withdrawing consumer products from the marketplace or taking other “corrective action” regarding actually or potentially unsafe or sub-standard products are important parts of consumer law and practice. Manufacturers and other suppliers can be incentivized to monitor the ongoing safety of their products after delivery into the supply chain for consumers, and then undertake corrective action to minimize harm, by private law mechanisms (such as tort claims for negligence brought by consumers) or reputational considerations (loss of customer goodwill etc). However, especially in developing countries experiencing problems with access to justice through the courts or limited media or NGO activity with respect to consumer affairs, public regulation relating to recalls has become significant.

National laws in ASEAN Member States (AMSs) mostly now provide for regulators to require suppliers to undertake mandatory recalls, under specific legislation enacted for (higher-risk) sectors such as automobiles, health products or foods, and/or under general consumer protection laws. In the shadow of such powers, regulators can also more effectively encourage or negotiate with suppliers to undertake (semi-)voluntary recalls. Sometimes suppliers even decide to undertake (purely) voluntary recalls, even without prior consultation with regulators or knowing their extent of their mandatory recall powers.

However, AMSs still lack general consumer protection laws that oblige suppliers to notify regulators when they undertake such voluntary recalls, as required by amendments in 1986 in Australia and 2013 in New Zealand. Nor do such laws in AMSs impose a broader product accident or hazard reporting duty on suppliers, even if the latter have not yet initiated a recall, as required in Australia since 2010 as well as the EU since 2001, Japan since 2006, Canada since 2010, and the US. Both types of obligations can encourage and assist suppliers to undertake recalls more effectively, through drawing on the technical expertise and communication networks of the consumer regulators.

Especially if AMSs take the first step of amending their national consumer protection laws to require suppliers to notify regulators about voluntary recalls, but even now given the mandatory recall powers generally available to regulators, it becomes important to define what is meant “recall” or whatever broader term (like “corrective action”) may be used in the relevant legislation, and provide guidance on when and how to undertake such remedial action effectively. In many major economies that have introduced duties on suppliers to make disclosures to regulators, on top of legislation providing for the latter’s back-up powers to order mandatory recalls, guidelines have recently been published or updated that elaborate quite extensively on rather sparse legislative provisions relating to recalls. These include quite detailed guidelines or handbooks publicized recently by authorities in the EU, the US, Australia, and Japan (although only in Japanese). By contrast, there is little publically-available guidance provided in AMSs. For example, the “Guidelines on Product Defect Reporting and Recall Procedures” are issued by the Health Sciences Authority of Singapore as a relatively short (undated) webpage, and anyway only relate to health products.

This Policy Digest therefore compares such recent guidance materials to identify key components and features that might be elaborated into “ASEAN Recall Guidelines” for consumer products generally. Although aimed primarily at suppliers and regulators, facilitating also evolving information-sharing platforms such as the ASEAN Product Alert website assembling national reports on some mandatory and voluntary recalls, such Guidelines aim also to benefit consumers. Accordingly, peak consumer associations or relevant NGOs should be closely consulted in elaborating such ASEAN Recall Guidelines.

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Japanese Law in Asia-Pacific Socio-Economic Context
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