From the October 2007 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Do You Recall?

Imports of everything from toys to food have been found to carry trouble

It's been a tough year for recalls. First it was pet food. Then everything from livestock feed to toothpaste, shrimp, fish, and toys to tires were found with dangerous contaminants or defects: melamine, diethylene glycol, pharmaceuticals, lead, and the omission of critical components. Imported ingredients and products, all of them, used as components in American products or resold by American wholesalers and retailers.

Then there's the contaminated domestic spinach, carrots, prepackaged sandwiches, and peanut butter--or other products with defects: everything from lawn and lounge chairs to lighting products, insulin pumps, and fire extinguishers.

Recall issues have been around for a long time, as have product liability suits. But with increasing quality control issues around imports, a staggering amount of imports to deal with (the U.S. Census Bureau says the U.S. has imported $953,869,000 worth of goods in the first half of 2007, up $38,498,000 from the same period in 2006), it's only a matter of time till more businesses deal with fallout from inferior or dangerous products.

Carol Murphy, central region managing director for Aon Casualty, says that although the losses were far from negligible, had the pet food issue been a human food issue, it would have been far more costly. Menu Foods, the Canadian pet food manufacturer first hit by the recall, chalked up losses of $45 million in Canadian dollars, and its first quarter sales dropped from $93.9 million to $64.5 million. Pet owners in Canada and the U.S. have filed numerous lawsuits, and there is the possibility of a class action suit.

Bill Harrison, managing director of Aon's Crisis Management practice, points out that there doesn't even have to be a problem with a client's business for there to be a loss. "We just settled one of these claims," he says, in which a company was accused in the media of having a contamination. The media report was wrong, but that didn't stop the loss to the company.

Your business-owning clients, from restaurateurs to manufacturers, boutiques to home builders, rely on third parties, often overseas, for ingredients, raw materials, goods, or parts on which their businesses thrive. Without adequate coverage, that could spell disaster.

Harrison explains that a policy can cover recall, replacement, and construction costs, as well as other expenses such as business interruption. He says that a company producing a food product with a taste people don't like can turn to its experts to change the recipe and make it more appealing. "But if people are afraid of the product because of accidental contamination or tampering or an adverse media report," he points out, "people won't buy it. It puts the company in jeopardy."

Murphy says business owners should evaluate the cost to benefit of coverage, and compare their claims experience with that of others within their industry. Advisors should also be sure clients look back far enough in their business's history. "These are by nature catastrophic situations," she says. "One incident 15 years ago could be relevant." Murphy adds that business owners should examine how their company differs from its peers. If your client's business has more loss control or other measures in place to prevent certain types of occurrences, he should differentiate his company's risk to an underwriter. Otherwise, "what happens to them could happen to you."

Some products will be difficult or impossible to insure--tires, for instance, because of catastrophic loss potential--and premiums may be high. "I know of one Fortune 500-size company," says Murphy, "that had a product recall program, and the premium was between $500,000 and $1 million." Depending on the risk, however, the cost may be worth it.


Marlene Y. Satter, a freelance business writer based in New Jersey, can be reached at harpwriter@verizon.net.

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