When a product malfunctions, its buyer complains. When enough products malfunction and customers complain, the manufacturer may be prompted to issue a recall. Product recalls are rarely good news, but there’s a world of difference between your average “there were 0.2% more bugs in this sausage than FDA regulations allow” recall and the ones we’re talking about today. These are companies panickedly realizing that they have been manufacturing products that can explode, catch fire, emit poison or even kill people, and the unfortunate aftermath of those exact things happening. Let’s take a look at some of the worst product recall cases of all time.
10. Dell notebook batteries
Mobile devices are everywhere, which means they need reliable batteries. However, every once in a while the occasional defective one manages to make it through the production line, leading to all those stories about exploding or otherwise malfunctioning batteries you occasionally read about in the news.
Between 2004 and 2006, Dell had a slightly less than lucky run with said defective batteries, when Sony delivered more than a few for their Inspiron, Latitude and Precision laptops and XPS units. Soon, reports of Dell notebooks catching fire or even exploding started surfacing, and the company was facing one of the largest recalls in the history of the electronics industry when it realized that the faulty batch was a whopping 4.1 million batteries that were a fire risk — almost 20% of Dell’s computer sales during that time period.
After some high-profile scandals such as a Dell laptop bursting into flames at a conference, Dell and Sony ended up issuing a recall for all 4.1 million batteries.
9. Westland/Hallmark beef
February 2008 was a bad time for Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company in Chino, California. Not only was the company drawing accusations for treating its cows badly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was also on their tail. They had slaughtered cows that had lost the ability to walk after they had already passed pre-processing inspections without having them examined for chronic illness, which was a bad move during a time when bovine spongiform encephalopathy — the Mad Cow Disease — was creating panic all over the Western world.
Westland/Hallmark paid a hefty price for their neglect when the Department of Agriculture forced them to recall the meat that had been potentially contaminated. All 143 million pounds of it. If you have a hard time wrapping your head around that number, it’s enough to make two delicious burgers for every single man, woman and child living in the U.S. at the time.
8. Mattel toys
As the maker of iconic toys such as Hot Wheels and Barbie dolls, it’s easy to assume that Mattel would pay pretty close attention to keeping its products safe for children. Unfortunately, not all of the company’s business partners bother with such trivialities; In 2007, Mattel announced a recall of no less than 967,000 toys after finding out that they were covered in poisonous lead paint.
The toy giant managed to stop roughly two thirds of the batch, which had been made by a Chinese contract manufacturer. However, an estimated 300,000 toys still made it to the shelves of American toy stores. These weren’t display action figures or over-12-years-old stuff, either — the 83 types of tainted products featured Nickelodeon and Sesame Street characters that were specifically aimed for toddlers.
The incident was particularly hurtful for Mattel because the Chinese company that had betrayed them was no cost-cutting spring chicken that had just started working for them. This was a manufacturer they had been working with for 15 years, which means they were in full knowledge of all the rules and regulations of safe toy-making … and yet, something went awry.
7. Ace Bayou bean bag chairs
Ace Bayou bean bag chairs were a popular and affordable piece of furniture that was sold widely by many popular retail stores and sites such as Walmart and Amazon. However, as you can probably guess by their presence on this list, their design had one serious safety flaw: The zipper. The Ace Bayou bean bag chairs were equipped with a zipper that was so easy to open that even small children could do it. Unfortunately, this exact thing happened more than once, and because an opened bean bag seems like an inviting miniature ball pit, kids climbed right in … and some of them closed the zipper behind them. We’re not going to go into the depressing specifics, so let’s just say that an airtight sack full of choking hazards is not the safest environment for a small child.
After two tragic deaths, Ace Bayou promptly issued a voluntary recall for its bean bags, and started to provide free repair kits that disabled the zipper.
6. The Hasbro Easy-Bake Oven
Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Oven seems like a fairly simple toy … that is, until you remember that it’s quite literally a miniature oven that young children can easily stick their fingers in. For everyone who has ever seen a toddler, let alone witnessed its parents frantically baby-proof the electrical outlets of the house, this seems like a pretty massive safety risk. After all, small children love nothing more than sticking their hands in every possible place, regardless of their danger factor.
With that in mind, please pretend to look surprised when we tell you that when Hasbro started using a genuine heating element (instead of the traditional light bulb) in the ovens in 2006, it took them less than a year to voluntarily issue a recall for a million easy-bake ovens, as toddlers kept sticking their hands inside the easy-bakey part of the toy, resulting in (occasionally serious) burns when their baby sausage fingers connected with the brand new heating element. Later in 2007, Hasbro repeated the process for another million toy ovens.
Between those two recalls, the toy company and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had been bombarded with a total of 249 complaints about kids getting their hands stuck in the oven, 77 of which reported burns. One 5-year-old received such bad burns that her finger had to be partially amputated.
Tylenol is a popular pain reliever that can nevertheless lead to massive complications — up to and including liver failure — when taken in large doses. It has also been the subject of several large-scale recalls over the years.
In 2009, the manufacturer had to recall several Tylenol brands because a wood-treating chemical had somehow made its way into the medicine and was causing diarrhea, vomiting and nausea to people who ingested the medicine. Another disaster struck in 2011, tens of thousands of Tylenol products had to be recalled over issues with quality control, and the problem became so large-scale that they had to close one of their manufacturing plants. In 2012, yet another 600,000 bottles of Tylenol for infants had to be recalled because dosing issues had turned the pill into a crapshoot of either too little or too much medicine. There have also been other, less significant recalls over mislabeling, development issues or a strange, uncharacteristically moldy odor.
However, the most infamous Tylenol product recall was no fault of the manufacturer. In 1984, someone in Chicago started tampering with bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol, lacing them with poisonous cyanide. The poison killed seven people before Johnson & Johnson (the manufacturer) had time to send warnings to distributors and hospitals, but they were quick to stop both advertisements and production of the drug and swiftly recalled an estimated 31 million bottles.
The Chicago Tylenol Murders remain unsolved to this day.
4. Jensen Farms
Cantaloupe may or may not be your favorite fruit, but even if you hate it from the bottom of your heart, eating it is unlikely to kill you … that is, unless you bought Jensen Farms’ sweet Rocky Ford cantaloupes in 2011. A batch of the farm’s product was contaminated with listeria, but nevertheless made it to the stores, where the tainted cantaloupes proceeded to kill 33 people and making 147 people violently ill in an outbreak that spanned 28 states. The listeria-laced melons were also linked to at least one miscarriage.
After a hasty recall, the two brothers who owned of the farm were arrested (and later filed for bankruptcy). An investigation found that they had neglected to use a system that sprayed the melons with an antibacterial solution before packaging, despite the fact that they knew perfectly well this could mean that their product was contaminated. Unsurprisingly, federal charges followed, and the Jensens’ farming career ended with six counts of adulteration of food and aiding and abetting.
In 2014, the brothers were each sentenced to five years probation and six months home detention, complete with 100 hours of community service and $150,000 of restitution payments. While this might seem like a slap on the wrist for men who were responsible for so many deaths, there were some mitigating factors at play. The case managed to prompt stricter food safety laws and liabities on producers, and many of the victims’ family members also agreed that the apologetic Jensens should face no prison time. It’s also fairly uncommon to actually charge food producers for food safety issues, and the FDA made it clear the Jensens’ case was specifically meant to send a message to other food producers out there.
3. The Ford-Firestone tire recall
When hundreds of people die because of a defective product, you know that someone somewhere has messed up in a serious way. Unfortunately, Ford and tire manufacturer Firestone had a hard time agreeing on which one of them was the true culprit in 2000-2001, when Firestone’s 15-inch Wilderness AT, radial ATX and ATX II tire treads started separating from the tires’ cores, which led to many nasty and movie-worthy roll-overs and crashes … and, of course, countless human tragedies.
Most of the defective tires were custom equipment for the Ford Explorer, which happened to be the world’s best-selling SUV at the time. Firestone immediately (and apparently genuinely) believed they had managed to sort the problem out and acted accordingly, but more and more accidents kept piling up, and Ford wasn’t happy — especially when Firestone started claiming that the problem wasn’t just the tires, but the design flaws in the Explorer itself. The back-and-forth between the two companies was a bitter one and reached epic levels that involved congressional hearings and the recall of 6.5 million tires. The situation came to a head in 2001, when the exasperated Ford promised to replace all 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires out there at their own expense. Firestone wasn’t having any of it and severed their nearly 100-year-old business relationship.
The defective tires caused 200+ deaths and over 800 injuries and countless lawsuits. Executives resigned, new laws were forged, and in a development that shocked absolutely no one, the tire company’s market value was cut in half.
2. Toyota’s faulty floor mats
Cars have tons of parts that can cause a massive disaster if they don’t function properly, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect the floor mat to be one of them. As Toyota proved to the world in 2009, you’d be wrong to assume so when they announced the recall of almost four million Toyota and Lexus cars, including 2005-2009 editions of the popular hybrid model Prius. The problem was, as you can probably guess, the cars’ floor mats, which thanks to a design flaw could become dislodged in multiple ways and get stuck under the accelerator, which could lead to every driver’s worst nightmare: unintended, uncontrolled and dangerous acceleration. This ended up happening in the most dramatic way imaginable, when a Highway Patrolman and his family found to their horror that the doormat of their Lexus sent them speeding uncontrollably at over 100 miles per hour. The patrolman was able to call 911 and explain the terrifying situation, and was still on the phone when the fatal crash came.
As accidents started piling up, the FBI started to become interested. The ensuing investigation revealed that Toyota had downplayed the unintended acceleration problem, which also included issues with sticky pedals and plenty of allegations that they kept making cars despite being well aware of their potentially lethal issues. In 2014, the manufacturer agreed to pay a massive $1.2 billion in order to avoid prosecution for its safety issues. The agreement also forced Toyota to “admit” misleading American consumers and making deceptive statements about serious safety issues. By then, the car company’s long-standing acceleration troubles had killed 89 people and injured a further 57, and the company had recalled over eight million vehicles.
1. Ford Pinto
Yes, it’s Ford again, and if you know anything about bad cars, you might actually have seen this one coming. Ford Pinto was one of the best-selling cars of the 1970s right up until the moment it turned out that the car was basically a fireball waiting to happen. A massive and tragic flaw in the Pinto’s design made the vehicle’s gas tank vulnerable to rear-end collisions, which could create an explosion and turn the car into a fiery death trap. Unfortunately, many of the owners found this out in the worst possible way. Faulty Ford Pintos caused around 500 deaths and hundreds of injuries before 1978, when Ford agreed to recall 1.5 million of the vehicles, along with 30,000 Mercury Bobcats with similar design issues.
The product scandal left Ford’s reputation in tatters, especially when it emerged that the fatal design flaw was the result of a very cynical cost-benefit analysis. Auto industry superstar Lee Iaocca, who had presided over Pinto’s creation, was unceremoniously fired, and Ford’s lawyers had to put in some serious overtime dealing with the 117 lawsuits by disgruntled customers. The recall also prompted a 1979 landmark case, “Indiana vs. Ford Motor Co.,” which marked Ford as the first American corporation that was indicted and prosecuted for criminal homicide.