NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Paul Walsh caught the tail end of a radio report last summer on his way in to the office -- the Department of Agriculture had recalled some packaged beef sold at a grocery store near his home.
Trouble was, he didn't take notes.
"I called my wife to find out if we had bought any of the beef, but I couldn't remember what brand it was," Walsh said. "I decided to do some research online and couldn't find anything there either. I realized that there was no one Web site out there that had up-to-the minute, complete information on product recalls."
Armed with a mission, Walsh and his partner launched Safetyalerts.com in February, a free Web site offering viewers what it calls the first comprehensive and up-to-date database of all product recalls made public to consumers in the United States.
The site also contains an archive, allowing users to pull up information on recalls of children's toys and household items over the last decade. Data on vehicle, food and medical recalls go back a year but are being expanded.
"Traffic is really starting to explode," Walsh said, noting Safetyalerts.com is already getting close to half-a-million hits a month.
Researchers for the site compile data from more than 90 different sources, including news services, federal government databases and state health and agriculture departments. They also call manufacturers directly when a pharmacist or subscriber calls to notify Safetyalerts.com of a recall that has not been reported -- which is more common than many people would expect.
"The vast majority of recalls are done voluntarily by the companies themselves," Walsh said, noting government Web sites that track specific product categories don't always have the latest information. "As far as we know, this is the only really easy way to pull up recall information. The only other way is to hunt them down."
Consumer advocates say the number of product recalls this decade has surged as regulators tighten their grip and Corporate America steps up efforts to insulate itself against a litigious public.
"It seems to me we are seeing more recalls all the time, and being a lawyer myself I feel it's probably because of liability concerns on the part of the manufacturers," said Don Rounds, president of The Consumer Alliance in Lansing, Mich., a non-profit consumer group. "Large corporations are being more careful to make sure they don't get
sued right out of business."
He called that "very positive" for the health and safety of the buying public.
Historically, tracking down safety and recall information on children's toys, pharmaceuticals and cars has been nothing short of a nightmare, consumer experts say.
Rounds notes that's especially true for yard sale enthusiasts who buy older kitchen appliances, young parents who accept hand-me-down baby cribs and toys, or people who buy used cars and trucks from the neighbor down the street.
"It's a research problem for consumers," he said. "Many times you'll get a notice on a vehicle parts recall years after you've gotten rid of it. So what's a consumer supposed to do? It takes too long and it's too much effort to track down recall information on every product you own."
If you're worried about bringing previously owned baby products home, you may want to check data on Safetyalerts.com and compare it with the recall notices provided by The Danny Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to preventing unintentional injuries from nursery products. The group's Web site features a link to alerts and recalls in the baby product industry.
Government data available
Another good place to double check is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that keeps a recall list of the 15,000 products it overseas.
The agency's Web site keeps a running list of all recalls for products under its scrutiny. It also allows users to file product complaints and search for previous recalls by topic or specific product .
You can also call the agency's recall hotline at 800 638-2772 or sign up to receive its e-mails about recalls.
Safetyalerts.com offers a similar service, allowing viewers to sign up for e-mails about product and food recalls. On average, subscribers receive between three and five notices a week.
Walsh said the site also now allows users to check off only those product categories for which they'd like to receive email.
"Let's say I don't have food allergies, and there is a recall on peanuts," he said. "I don't really want to be bothered with that. Maybe you only want to hear about toys or auto recalls."
For recall notices on food, there are several Web sites that can assist you.
The National Food Safety Database provides a hot topic button to alert consumers of food safety concerns. The data are culled from global news reports, press releases and government recall notices. (It also pulls data from Safetyalerts.com.)
Brake lights and fan belts
In the market for a used car? Then it might be wise to make a pit stop at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's site.
Consumer reports also provides a detailed index on its Web site of all types of product recalls, including children's products, household goods and trucks and vans.
For food products, check out the Food and Drug Administration's weekly enforcement reports containing information on pharmaceuticals and certain food products. The Department of Agriculture, which monitors meat products, has a food and safety alert site of its own.
Lastly, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has its own online database of auto-related recalls, which includes child safety seats. It also provides a link to the monthly press release it issues on various recalls.
If that sounds like too much surfing, don't sweat it. The government has launched its own one-stop shop for tracking down government recall alerts --the U.S. Consumer Gateway .
"This is a really good resource for consumers who want to find out what's been recalled by a manufacturer but don't know where to look," said Russ Rader, a CPSC spokesman.
Jan Van Meter, crisis management expert at Fleishman-Hillard , a public relations and communications firm, said the issue of product recalls is troubling for the manufacturers as well.
Of course, he said, most try to fix or alert the public to health or safety dangers associated with their products, but they also want to avoid legal problems down the road.
"Believe me, the manufacturers would love to get 100 percent response if only for the tort lawyers sitting out there," Van Meter said. "Increasingly the subject of their lawsuits these days are how much energy did they put into the recall? How effective was it? Why didn't they do more?"
But even the most effective recalls don't reach everyone who bought the product, and many don't even reach half.
"This is a very interesting problem even from the corporate angle," Van Meter said, noting many variables effect a recall's success.
Rader of the CPSC agreed that reaching the public can be a problem. A good way to ensure you'll be notified of any safety or health hazards on the products you purchase, he said, is to fill out and send in the warranties that come with your product.
Manufacturers and the CPSC use those lists to send out notices directly to consumers.
For consumers concerned about product safety, experts say the bottom line is do your homework -- especially if you're purchasing an item second-hand. But with online resources, checking a product's recall history is as simple as typing in a few keywords.
"People don't watch TV all day long or listen to the radio to keep up with recall notices," said Walsh, of Safetyalerts.com. "The Internet just seems to be the perfect medium for this type of information."