McDonald’s Recalls Step-It Fitness Wristbands after Reports of Wrist Irritation

Michael GrossmanOctober 25, 2016 3 minutes

In mid-August, McDonald's Inc. announced a recall of its Step-It Fitness Tracker Happy Meal toys. Encouraged by the burgeoning market of fitness wearables like the FitBit health tracker, as well as "smart" wearables like the Apple Watch, the wristband-like wearable device functioned as a pedometer, ostensibly to encourage physical activity among its young wearers. No doubt the move was largely PR-motivated, considering that the company is deeply invested in trying to reinvent its image as a healthier brand than it was previously perceived to be.

According to the recall notice issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the wristbands caused 70 documented cases of skin irritation and redness among their wearers. Seven of those reports also included the development of blisters on the affected skin.

Step-It Wristband, burn example
A burn sustained by a child after wearing the digital "counter" model Step-It band.

Who Makes This Product?

McDonald's is the company that was actively distributing the product from August 9 through the 17th, before it announced the recall. It has not disclosed the name of the company that actually manufactured the bands. I'm just spitballing here, but the nature of the gadget the bulk aspect of the order would suggest that the company likely outsourced the job to an overseas manufacturer. In order to guarantee low overheads and therefore low per-unit prices, safety regulations and quality control are often played fast and loose in the overseas consumer commodities export market.

Which Products are Affected?

Both forms of the Step-It tracker were recalled by McDonald's in its release. The toys come in two styles; one is an "activity counter" wristband with a digital screen that comes in orange, blue or green. The other is a band with lights that blink when a child moves that comes in red, purple or orange, according to the recall notice.

How Widespread is the Problem?

McDonald's restaurants across the U.S. and Canada sold Happy Meals with the wristband toys for approximately one week before the event reports stacked up too high to ignore. When they received their 70th complaint in a single week, McDonald's elected to pull the product. Most of the stock of 33 million bands had not been circulated to the public at this point.

What Can Be Done About It?

While much of the stock was simply redirected back to McDonald's corporate distributorship after the recall was issued, obviously many units made it onto the wrists of the children for whom they were meant. Parents were encouraged by the recall notice (which was picked up and heavily parroted by news networks) to return the defective band to a local restaurant, to be exchanged for a different Happy Meal toy or a bag of apple slices.

What Does This Mean?

It would not appear that the problem is terribly dangerous, but it certainly counts for something that so many adverse event reports were logged within a single week. Rashes and sores developing on children's wrists is not really an acceptable side effect of making use of the toy they were provided, but the described injuries are not really of a degree that attorneys are likely to pursue cases on behalf of clients.

Most puzzling about this recall is that this appears to be an endemic issue with fitness trackers overall. Certain models of the popular FitBit adult fitness tracker band were recalled in 2014 for similar reports of rashes and skin irritation on the wrists of its users. Reports went so far as to suggest some of those injuries were "burns;" FitBit corporate responses indicated that the most likely source of all reported conditions was allergic contact dermatitis. For some, this may have been a dermal response to the nickel content present in the surgical-grade stainless steel housing of the electronics, and for others it may have been a reaction to the silicone wristband or the adhesives holding the product together.

Generally, the commercial fitness tracker market has not seen similar problems since the recall of the FitBit Force, and there is a surfeit of manufacturers and models to choose from these days. McDonald's Happy Meal-grade wristbands, however, do not benefit from the careful research and design that may have been incorporated into the more expensive adult models.

While I'm sure their hearts were in the right place, maybe they should have used their heads (and wrists) this time.