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issue: July 2011 ApplianceMagazine.com

Beko Fights Fire in the UK

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Fridge fires become headline news in the UK and Beko struggles to address the concerns of 500,000 customers.

European major appliance brand Beko is struggling to get control of a massive product recall of refrigerators in the United Kingdom, but isn't working fast enough to satisfy many consumers—or government fire safety officials.

Blame for the fires is placed on a faulty defrost timer in some frost-free refrigerator models. About 500,000 Beko refrigerators sold in the UK apparently include the timer. The company intends to fix each affected refrigerator without cost to the consumer. The affected refrigerators were manufactured between January 2000 and October 2006. A full list of the affected model numbers are posited on its web site - http://www.beko.co.uk - so owners can see if they own one of the affected models.

But blame is also being heaped on Beko for its response. It is being accused of being slow to act and inadequately prepared to handle the recall.

Headlines Breed Chaos

Beko, the European brand of Turkish appliance maker Arçelik, began contacting owners of the appliances in early 2011 to schedule a free, in-home fix of the faulty part. Then, on July 5, 2011, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) announced its finding that a recent apartment fire, initially thought to be caused by lightning, was instead caused by a faulty Beko fridge. The LFB called the incident an "urgent warning" of the danger of the product.

Following the July 5 LFB release the media turned its attention to reports on the death of Santosh Benjamin-Muthiah, who died in a kitchen fire in November 2010 at his home in the London borough of Harrow. A Harrow Times report just after his death said only that the cause of the fire was being investigated. In July 2011 the Harrow Times and several other media outlets were reporting that a Beko fridge had been identified as the source of the fire by investigators.

The LFB statement and other media coverage turned the fridge problem into high-profile news in the UK, and with it came a flood of consumer response. Beko said it was deluged with calls from worried customers, overwhelming its customer support centers. Many customers failed to reach customer support lines.

In a July 7 release Beko apologized for the frustration of customers unable to reach the company and said it had increased its call center capacity by twenty times and dedicated additional staff to respond to email enquiries. The company said it has also increased its repair capacity by five times to better address the large volume of repairs needed.

London Fire Brigade Involvement

The British media was full of reports in early July 2011 of consumers angry with Beko for what is perceived to be a slow response, particularly in light of media reports in which fires from as far back as 2007 are blamed on the fridges.

LFB - the government branch that serves as a firefighting as well as fire safety and prevention agency - said its fire investigation team was trying for three years to determine if there was a link between a faulty defroster timer switch on the Beko appliances and a number of house fires.

LFB said the problem occurs when water gets into the defrost timer switch in the fridge freezer, which can lead to an electrical malfunction resulting in the ignition of plastic components and flammable insulation inside the appliance.

LFB formally alerted Beko to the problem in June 2010 and said that, following meetings between Beko and fire investigators, the manufacturer began a program to locate products and correct the fault.

In a BBC article a Beko spokesman says the appliance company began the recall process, in December 2010, by identifying the retailers that had sold the fridges. The retailers were contacted in February 2011.

The Beko spokesperson said Beko had mailed more than 100,000 fridge owners and had repaired 11,000 of the refrigerators.

"The Brigade believes more needs to be done to alert people to the potential danger," the July 5 LFB statement said. "There are believed to have been 20 fires in the capital alone involving the fridge freezers since 2008. These fires have seen 15 people injured and one person die."

“Any fire can be lethal but the London Fire Brigade is particularly concerned about this because fires involving any sort of fridge freezer develop rapidly and produce an enormous amount of toxic smoke," said LFB Assistant Commissioner for Fire Safety Regulation Steve Turek. "Expert fire investigators have had to work for a long time to confidently establish these faulty fridge freezers as the cause of a number of serious fires. Having established this link, we have worked closely with Beko to ensure the public is kept safe. However, the Brigade urges everyone who has a Beko fridge freezer to check it is not one of those highlighted by the company as potentially faulty. I would also urge everyone to make sure they have a working smoke alarm in their house.”

Beko Statements

Beko statements said that, "Quality, customer safety and satisfaction is paramount to Beko; all its products are independently tested before being placed on the market and meet all UK and European safety standards."

In a separate July 7 release, Beko said: "Over 500,000 of these products have been sold, and most have been safely in use, some for over ten years. It is important to realize that the risk to consumers is extremely low. You can continue to use your fridge freezer, but as with any electrical product, if you notice anything different please contact us. Our original plan, as discussed and supported by Trading Standards was for a phased approach in order to minimize consumer delay and concern."

The company appears to also have earned some distrust from consumers with the news that it had a recall notice removed from a commercial web site – RecallUK - in April 2011.

The web site said that the appliance maker asked that the listing be removed because, as the web site states, "they did not consider it to be a recall. Their point was that because they were checking/repairing the product at the customer’s site the product was not being recalled."

"In the light of recent events we have put this product safety issue back on our site," RecallUK said when it reposted the item on July 5. It also posts a recall item on a Beko-manufactured fridge freezer sold under the British brand name Lec, which is marketed by Glen Dimplex Home Appliances.

PR Tipping Point

Aside from the cost of the recall and the negative publicity accompanying the product problem itself, more ill will against the brand was generated when worried consumers failed to get the answers they needed from the company.

Crisis management consultant Paul Smith, writing about public relations for the UK-based marketing and media web site The Drum, said that, from appearances, Beko did take the correct early steps to handle the problem, including working with government agencies and contacting consumers. But a "tipping point" was reached when the recall became headline news, Smith wrote, which soon overwhelmed the capabilities Beko had in place. Smith said that companies need to be prepared for a worst-case scenario in their crisis planning.

When web sites crash under heavy traffic and support lines become inaccessible, Smith said, even more bad PR is the result: "an avoidable crisis within your crisis."

Official Notices

The most recent official recall notice for the Beko Fridge Freezers, dated June 16, 2011, is on the Trading Standards Institute web site here:
Beko Frost Free Fridge Freezers - safety notice.

The most recent official recall notice for the Lec Fridge Freezer, dated June 3, 2011, is on the Trading Standards Institute web site here:
LEC TF2304W Fridge Freezer - safety notice.


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