By Joseph S. Enoch
January 7, 2008
It's a rare day in Washington that an agency head expresses pleasure with the press. So it was no surprise when the head of the nation's consumer safety agency chastised reporters for looking on the dark side of the recent spate of product recalls.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Nancy Nord, acting chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), said the press has treated product safety recalls as though they represented a failure instead of a success.
Everytime there is a recall, it indicates the agency has done its job, Nord said.
Nord also said she had an announcement to make. She said the agency is expanding its relationship with U. S. Customs through a new Import Surveillance Division.
This will mark the first permanent, full-time presence of CPSC staff at key ports of entry throughout the U.S., Nord said. They will utilize both their expertise and a new cargo tracking system being implemented with Customs to stop and inspect suspect shipments.
But whether the initiative is really all that new isn't certain.
The agency began using the cargo tracking system a year ago, said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson and the agency has had a close relationship with Customs since its creation in 1974, said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America.
Nord would not say how much this new initiative will cost nor how many agency employees will be required to operate it.
Nord also discussed legislation pending in Congress. Similar bills in the House and Senate would vastly increase her agency's staff, funding and regulatory authority.
The House bill, which was passed unanimously just before the recess, contains fewer public disclosure requirements and sets a lower ceiling on fines that the CPSC can levy for safety violations than the Senate Bill, which has not yet been scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor.
I was ... pleased by the way in which the House Energy and Commerce Committee went about crafting their legislation, with full bipartisan participation and support and with the input of the CPSC and consumer and industry groups alike, Nord said. Not everyone was 100 percent happy with the final product, but most seemed at least 80 percent happy.
As for the Senate, Im not sure what to say other than the process used to develop the legislation was, simply put, a different one than that pursued in the House and the final product clearly shows that, Nord continued.
While the Senate bill does contain some of the recommendations I made, it also contains some provisions that change our mandate in ways that may not be helpful," she said.
The main clause of concern for Nord in the Senate version of the bill appears to be section 6(b) which will allow for much greater transparency in many of the agency's inner workings -- potentially revealing how many complaints a certain company has received and whether there is a pending investigation into a product or company.
Currently, such information can be obtained only through a Freedom of Information Act request, a process that can take many months.
Nord argued that 6(b) would overwork her agency. Industry lobbyists fear that it will subject their clients to unfair criticism.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which in many ways is similar to CPSC, publishes all of its complaints on its website. However, it does not reveal whether an automobile or company is under investigation.
Nord repeatedly hailed her agency's success in removing the coma-inducing Aqua Dots from the market and chastised the media for not congratulating the agency on its success.
Not only did the media coverage not mention the lightning speed at which we acted in this case, but it also failed to mention that there was absolutely no way the CPSC could have anticipated or tested for this product defect at the ports, or anywhere else for that matter, until an incident had manifested itself, Nord said.
"Not glad tidings"
But while Nord is pleased with the House legislation, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said the bill was "not glad tidings for consumers." She said it is "inadequate to protect American families" and said the measure:
• Does not require public safety data on dangerous products to be made public - an amendment for a robust consumer information system offered by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) was rejected in committee today;
• Fails to increase civil penalties sufficiently for knowing violations of safety laws;
• Falls dramatically short of providing the budget and staff that the CPSC needs;
• Fails to sufficiently streamline the CPSCs current, ineffective recall procedures;
• Does not enable the CPSC to block unsafe imported products at the border before they harm consumers;
• Does not mandate pre-market testing of childrens toys and other consumer products; and
• As Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.) pointed out, creates a new, unprecedented criminal immunity for corporations that merely comply with the law by reporting hazardous substances in products.
In a press release, the National Association of Manufacturers said it supports a stronger CPSC but reject(s) provisions that would generate increased litigation rather than increased safety.
Most notably, NAM opposes a provision which allows state attorneys general to sue manufacturers that produce dangerous products.
During the markup debates, Dingell urged his colleagues not to vote for product-specific amendments because he wanted to keep the bill clean, improving its chances of passing. As a result strengthening amendments that would have given the agency authority over fixed thrill rides, pet toys and many others, were withdrawn.
Safety Recalls a Sign of Success?...