In the wake of the recent major children’s toy recall, The New York Times has reported mixed signals emanating from the Consumer Product Safety Commission – officials there state they have enhanced protections for the American public in recent years. But, says the Times, they have also blocked enforcement actions, weakened industry oversight rules and promoted voluntary compliance over safety mandates, according to interviews with current and former senior agency officials and consumer groups and a review of commission documents.
At a time when imports from China and other Asian countries surged, creating an ever greater oversight challenge, the commissioners voiced few objections as an already tiny agency —was further pared down. At the nation’s ports, the handful of agency inspectors are hard pressed to find dangerous cargo before it enters the country; instead, they rely on other federal agents, who mostly act as trademark enforcers, looking for counterfeit sneakers or brand name batteries.
At the agency’s cramped laboratory, a lone employee is charged with testing suspected defective toys from across the nation. At the nearby headquarters, safety initiatives have been stalled or dropped after dozens of jobs were eliminated in budget cutbacks.
Agency officials defend their record. “The commission is currently doing more to protect consumers than it has at any prior time in its history,” said Nancy A. Nord, the acting chairwoman. “Even more could be done with greater resources, but the media’s portrayal of a crippled and impotent agency, unable to deal with basic problems, is reckless and just plain wrong.”
Congress intended the agency to protect the public by working with the industry and others to establish voluntary standards. Ms. Nord and industry executives say that system is largely effective, in no small measure because it is in companies’ self-interest to avoid turning out products that cause harm. When hazards arise, Ms. Nord says, she is confident that the agency acts to deal with them appropriately.
For the first time in years, the commission has drawn sustained attention because of the headlines generated in recent months by the seemingly endless recalls of Chinese-made products: Thomas & Friends toy trains, Mattel< Sesame Street toys, propane grills, high chairs, computer batteries, lawn trimmers, children’s jewelry and tool kits.
Ms. Nord acknowledges that the agency has to limit its focus; it investigates only 10 percent to 15 percent of the reported injuries or deaths linked to consumer goods; the number of such reports has grown in recent years. But she ticks off achievements: a record number of recalls — 471 products — last year. Increased fines for safety violations. A rise in reports from companies disclosing product safety problems. A new standard to prevent mattress fires, a leading killer, and more mandates under review
Consumer advocates say the increased recalls and hazard reports make a different case: that too many flawed products are in the marketplace because the agency is not doing its job.
“Once there is a recall, it is too late,” said Rachel Weintraub, the director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America. “Consumers are already exposed to the potential harm.”
The PMA Law Conference - November 15-16 at the Downtown Marriott, in Chicago anticipated these matters when it earlier this year scheduled a major session on Consumer Product Safety with Eric Rubel, of Arnold & Porter, a former general counsel for the CPSC, Rick Locker, General Counsel of the Toy Industry Association and John Du, a partner in the Jun De Law Office, and an expert on the laws of China. go to www.pmalink.org for more on the PMA Law Conference and to register.