Following several high-profile product safety incidents, a new Government Office was created in 2018. Has the office made a difference and how can retailers avoid reputational damage?

Back in the mid-2010s, two devastating incidents in West London were linked to faulty domestic appliances. Although none died in a Shepherds Bush fire in 2016, believed to have been caused by a faulty tumble dryer, 72 victims were not so fortunate the next year. In 2017, a malfunctioning fridge-freezer led to the Grenfell Fire.

In between these events, consumer journalist Lynn Faulds Woods chaired an independent review into the UK’s consumer product recall system which was published in February 2016[1]. The central recommendation of this report was:

There is a need for the creation of an official national product safety agency or ‘centre of excellence’ to show leadership and coordinate the system, promoting, protecting, informing and empowering business and consumers.

The London Fire Brigade were also active in campaigning for more work to be done on product safety and recalls[2]. As they said in 2017:

Nearly one fire a day in London involves white goods [..]. Between 2010 and 2016 there have been nine fire deaths and 298 injuries as a result of fires involving white goods in London.

In January 2018 a new Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) was launched by the then Minister for Business Andrew Griffiths MP[3]:

The new Office for Product Safety and Standards will strengthen the UK’s already tough product safety regime and will allow consumers to continue to buy secure in the knowledge there is an effective system in place if products need to be repaired or replaced

OPSS role was not just enforcing product safety of white goods. It would cover almost all consumer non-food goods such as toys, cosmetics, electronics. It would not cover medical devices, vehicles and workplace products as national regulators already exist.

Up until then, product safety was mostly enforced by Local Authority Trading Standards Services (TSS). TSS is based in over 200 Local Authorities and each of those authorities is free to set their own priorities. As well as product safety TSS enforce several other consumer protection areas such as fair trading, prevention of underage sales and weights and measures. Local Authorities could also each decide their own budgets and resource levels for TSS, which could mean that product safety may not be a priority for a particular TSS[4].

The responsibilities imposed by the legislation include duties for parties in the product supply chain to:

  • place only safe products on the market, supported by information on their correct use;
  • warn consumers about potential product-related risks;
  • monitor the safety of products;
  • inform the relevant Market Surveillance Authority (usually trading standards) if a safety issue is identified;
  • take effective corrective action where necessary.

Product Recalls

Responsibility for placing safe products on the market goes across the supply chain and includes manufacturers, importers, distributors. Retailers are usually considered ‘distributors’, but some retailers are also manufacturers. Product recalls are generally well-known in the automotive and food industries but less so in the non-food sectors.

Many retailers and manufacturers have had to undertake a recall at some point. A recall is defined as :

A measure aimed at achieving the return of a product other than a safe product, that has already been supplied or made available to consumers[5].

In practice, this often takes the form of notices in-store or on when websites or affected consumers being contacted by a manufacturer or retailer.

Most recalls are relatively minor and don’t involve publicity, but some recalls can become very high profile. In 2019 Whirlpool announced a recall of 519,000 washing machines that could pose a fire risk. That recall came just five months after a recall of 800,000 tumble dryers.

When retailers or manufacturers become aware of potential safety issues, no matter how minor, swift, decisive action should be taken to protect consumers and your brand. The recall process can seem daunting but there is free guidance available to help deal with any corrective actions that retailers may need to take. As with many areas of compliance and regulation prevention is better than cure.

In 2018 a Publicly Available Specification (PAS) Code of practice on consumer product safety-related recalls and other corrective actions was published. This is a guide that aims to support manufacturers, distributors, importers and retailers to “prepare fully to deal with any product safety issue that might arise with their products”. Retailers are advised to download this document for free. It is for businesses of all sizes.

Section 4 on putting together a ‘product safety information plan’ is essential reading for retailers. This will help retailers put in place a plan in case you ever need to undertake a recall.

Has the Office for Product Safety and Standards been a success?

Despite the creation of a new Government Office focussing on product safety, safety incidents are still occurring. These have included Angle grinder chainsaw disc attachments, magnetic products and gardening equipment[6]. However, OPSS has been able to let partners such as the BRC know quickly so that we can update our members. At the BRC we have been able to get answers to technical questions quickly from OPSS which has been welcomed by BRC retailers. In June a National Audit Office Report[7] found that OPSS:

Has made impactful interventions on national issues, including strengthening high-profile recall processes for household appliances, provided new forms of support for local regulators, and developed new databases to prepare for EU Exit.

The report also found that:

The product safety regime faces major challenges to keep pace with changes in the market. There are gaps in regulators’ powers over products sold online, local and national regulation is not well coordinated despite improvements, and the OPSS does not yet have adequate data and intelligence.

OPSS remit continues to grow and this year they also took on responsibility for Construction Products.

Product Safety in 2022

With most product safety regulations having come from Europe it remains to be seen how far the UK will ‘diverge’ (i.e. be different from) from European Union Regulations. For retailers who trade in both the UK and Europe, this could become difficult. If divergence does take place then manufacturers, importers and distributors (retailers) may have to undertake two conformity assessment (testing, inspection and certification) processes.

UKCA Mark – Breakout Box

The CE Mark has been a familiar label on certain goods such as toys, electricals and medical devices for almost 40 years. It is the manufacturer’s declaration that the goods conform to the relevant safety and environmental standards. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a product is safe!

From January 2022 the UKCA mark must be used in Great Britain. Special rules around the CE mark apply in Northern Ireland.

Graphics to be used for the article

CE Mark -

UKCA Mark -

Author Biography

Adrian Simpson is a Policy Advisor for Retail Products at the British Retail Consortium. He manages the Buying Community which aims to help retailers supply safe and compliant goods. He joined the BRC in April 2021 following a career in trading standards including as a frontline officer, service manager and later managing the Business Education Service at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI). He is a Chartered Trading Standards Practitioner.


This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.