Consumer product database in jeopardy

July 6, 2011

You may think the government’s wheels always grind slowly, but they can spin fast when a government action runs afoul of business.

After years and years of providing but an iceberg’s tip of the information possessed by the agency, the tiny U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in March opened the door to a new world for its constituents: American consumers. The agency launched a publicly searchable database that catalogs product incidents experienced in homes across the nation.

But now the database that gives the public access to safety incidents on everything from microwaves to baby monitors is on the verge of being defunded, potentially dealing a blow to consumer safety.

The purpose for the database was to add an unprecedented level of transparency to a process cloaked in secrecy. We still don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes as the government and business haggle over the terms of the recalls you eventually hear about. But you can — in almost real-time — see what folks are saying are product dangers.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent incident documented by a consumer about a microwave that seems to have gone a bit haywire: “Unit turned itself on when we were out of the home. When we got home we heard a fast beeping and the keyboard was locked, the microwave was hot to the touch and the only way to shut it off was to unplug it … ”

It’s not unlike reading the comments on Internet complaint boards, except the government is required to give every company named in an entry 10 days to issue a response before the incident is made public. In the case of the microwave, the company chose not to comment. Some companies do respond, often explaining that the described episode was a fluke or user error. Then it’s up to the consumer to decide how to process that information.

The value is that consumers can see if others have had they same problems they are experiencing. The database can be used for research when making a purchase for anything from a high chair to a dehumidifier.

Alas, even before the database launched, Representative Mike Pompeo tried to lead a last-minute bid to defund it. And the National Association of Manufacturers and Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association also said they had issues with the database. Several opponents to the database have said they were concerned trial lawyers could manipulate the information to help bolster lawsuits against the companies whose products were listed.

At a hearing in May, a subcommittee took aim at the database and other long-awaited upgrades to consumer protection laws that had finally gone into effect. And then the full Appropriations Committee voted to remove all funding from the database.

Wait, it gets better (or worse), one of the CPSC’s own commissioners — a former congresswoman — is now attacking the upgrade of standards for how cribs must be made. Those rules took effect on June 28 and apply to all cribs being sold in the U.S.

A last-minute request by a small collection of  retailers (one not joined by Toys R Us/Babies R Us, the largest crib retailer in the country or the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association) to allow old inventory to be sold off before requiring only cribs complying with the new rules to be sold was rejected by the commission.

“It is as if the majority of this Commission simply does not care about the impact of regulation on businesses or the economy,” CPSC Commissioner Anne Northup said in a lengthy statement. “While I was once hopeful that we could agree upon reasonable regulations to tackle the unforeseen consequences of the mandates imposed on the Commission by Congress, I now question whether this Commission will ever awaken to the fact that it is complicit in destroying jobs and strangling the economy.”

So much for the idea that protecting infants was the most important role of a safety agency. The CPSC’s chairman, Inez Tenenbaum, issued a statement of her own to rebut her fellow commissioner.

After dozens of babies had tragically been entrapped and died, and millions of defective cribs had been recalled, the actions of this Commission to ensure the swift movement to market of only safer cribs undoubtedly was justified and honors the expectation of families across the nation. It is for this reason that I am so disappointed with my colleague’s attempt to disparage my actions, those of my Democratic colleagues, and our professional staff, in a quest to advance the business interests of a few, over the greater interests of protecting the safety of our most vulnerable consumers.

Sure, the database was somewhat controversial, but it’s a sad day to look at how far we’ve come and instead of appreciating the view, worry about how far we’ll have to retreat.


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Posted by Consumer product database in jeopardy | Report as abusive

Quit calling the citizens of the United States “consumers.” It’s tasteless term, devoid of personal or human recognition, as I suppose was intended by the first person to have spat the word from his lips.

Posted by Soothsayer | Report as abusive

Obviously a private business opportunity exists if they close the public database. Anything worthwhile will make money and prosper!

Posted by abkisa | Report as abusive

[…] We’re not alone in our belief that it is the sunshine manufacturers fear, not errors.  Read these two recent pieces by David Lazarus in the LA Times and Mitch Lipka on Reuters. […]

Posted by CPSC database still under attack, despite success | Kids In Danger | Report as abusive

Ah, TRANSPARENCY in government. Obama where are you?

Posted by TexasOkie | Report as abusive

Re: Abkisa: People shouldn’t have to pay for vital life-and-death safety information.

Posted by Thalya | Report as abusive