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Ian Anderson was a key witness in the Qantas case. After Consumer Affairs Victoria successfully ran court action against Qantas and its supplier Alpha, I visited key witness Ian to talk to him about what happened. In this interview, Ian talks about how he discovered Qantas was selling a banned product (Magnetic Toy) in their in-flight duty free service. As a leading toy safety expert, Ian quickly recognised ‘Nanodots’ as being a product that’s banned in Australia, USA and many other jurisdictions.

What happened next is a lesson not just for airlines, but for all retailers.

You can also read my blog article about this case.

Here is the transcript of the interview.

Toy Safety Guru on the Qantas Product Safety Case Transcript

Ian Anderson, product safety consultant and former vice-president of the International Council of Toy Industries as interviewee and Gail Greatorex, Director Product Safety Solutions, as interviewer

 

Gail: Can you tell us about the first time you saw the banned magnets on the Qantas flight?

Ian: As with all long flights you get bored enough to read the in-flight magazine and the duty free magazine just to compare with the prices on other airlines. But in this case, I came to a page illustrated Nanodots which I recognised straight away under a different name as Buckyballs, which have been banned in the US several years before. The problem with Buckyballs and Nanodots is simply that they’re small enough to be ingested easily and they stick together and can form a blockage across the intestine. In a young child, that can be particularly dangerous.

Australia banned them 3 years before and gazetted that but apparently the people that sourced the magnets had not realised that the ban was virtually universal. While it was originally banned because of its danger to children, because of its ability to be accessed by children, roll around, its small and attractive overall then the Australian authorities banned it completely as did the US and Europe, Canada, Japan.

When I arrived in Hong Kong the following day, I phoned Qantas because I’ve been a long time member of the Qantas frequent flyer club to alert them they had a product which was not compliant with the safety regulations in several countries around the world, but more notably in Australia. The response was a little dismissive and I wasn’t happy with that.

To be 100% sure that I was right, I phoned my contact here in Australia and asked him whether I was right with my facts. He assured me that I was and sent me the information on it. I phoned them again and got much the same answer.

About 8 or 9 days later, I saw it was still there on the website and there was no comment about being withdrawn from sale. I rang again and this time they told me they relied upon the supplier of the goods for information as regards to safety. I thought this was fairly foolish because Qantas themselves sell it. It’s advertised in their magazine with their name.

So the risk and the bad publicity that goes along with providing unsafe goods would all be put back to Qantas, not their supplier, because no one knows who that is. I suggested they should regard it more seriously.

It almost seemed like a second thought – they put me in touch with their supplier, Alpha. I phoned Alpha. The response there was markedly different. They were immediately interested in what I had to say and as it turned out later in the court documents that I’ve seen, they reacted immediately. Not within half an hour, but within minutes of the phone call. They were already putting in place a mechanism to withdraw the product from sale.

The next thing was that I saw it was still advertised in their magazine and it was advertised in other aircraft magazines that have affiliations with Qantas.

The next thing I knew was when I was contacted by the Department of Justice, Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) and they asked me if I was the Ian Anderson who had corresponded with Qantas in regard to the unsafe product they were selling. I assured them that I was and they asked if I was prepared to make a statement about it to which I said yes. I was still anxious to ensure an unsafe product wasn’t available on the market place regardless of whether it was sold in an airline or retail store.

They came to see me; we sat down and went through the statement. It was typed up and sent back to me so I could go through it to ensure there were no errors. I provided them with all of my correspondence backwards and forwards to Qantas because I followed up these things with an email and obviously still had the emails and their responses. That was all provided to the department. The next thing I knew was they were going to court in December.

The findings were handed down on December 24, which showed that Qantas had not fulfilled their responsibility in regard to ensuring the product offered was safe. In evidence it showed they had responded belatedly, but had now put in place a check system and a number of people involved to ensure that all products that came through were now evaluated for safety.

 

Gail: What lessons do you think there might be for companies who do sell consumer goods out of this particular case?

Ian: If you’re unsure, ask someone who knows. Not someone who perhaps knows but a recognised authority and if they tell you it has a problem, check and verify that. There’s no point in going blindly on and assuming that everyone will do the right thing.

Mistakes happen, people don’t think it through and they just tick it off and on it goes on to the trolley or counter. The penalties are quite large and they can be huge depending on how the court looks at it. If the court looks at it as the same penalty should apply to every transaction, that’s when it can become quite large. As it was, $200,000 for Qantas and $50,000 for the supplier. The reason for the difference was the supplier had showed immediate concern and accepted its responsibility to withdraw the product and act properly. Qantas assumed they’d be okay. To me, that’s a very foolish attitude to take.

People rely on a company that the products they offer for sale are safe and not likely to injure a small child. That’s where the whole concept of product safety must come about – is it safe? If it’s not safe, do something straight away. Don’t wait, do it now.

 

Gail: With a banned product, it’s not easy to work out your compliance?

Ian: With a banned product, you just need to go to the government website. It’s very clearly shown on the website that it’s banned. There’s no excuse for delaying any action after that. First thing you should have done is check the website. This is wrong, let’s stop it now. Let’s stop one more piece getting into the hands of the public.

Let’s go out and recall the ones that are there because selling it duty free on an aircraft is usually payed by a credit card so it’s not hard to recover. The Australian standards has something that many standards around the world don’t have. It’s a real benefit. That is – it’s tested for conceivable use or misuse. Many standards only work on the basis of the user using it correctly. However kids will find a way of using things that we would never dream of but we have to. We have to assume it can be used in different ways and have to go out and find out what those ways are then we can be more certain of ensuring that children will be safe.

 

You can also read Gail’s blog article on Qantas and the Banned Magnet Toys