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September 2008

Congress Strengthens Consumer Product Safety

The media airwaves are full of political ads for this fall’s election; some focus on the U.S. Congress and its stated failure to get things done. I am not going to wander into the middle of this political argument. Yet, you should know that Congress recently did something important on a bipartisan basis that will benefit nearly every American: It has substantially increased funding, staffing, and regulatory authority for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

The CPSC is the federal agency responsible for the safety of the products we use. Despite the importance of its mission, it is one of the smallest federal agencies, employing fewer than 600 staff and enduring a shrinking budget for the past several years. However, recent consumer scares such as the importation of unsafe toys from China brought increased attention to the agency and its inability to protect consumers from harmful products. In 2007 alone, more than 45 millions toys were recalled. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, product recalls are happening at an even faster rate in 2008.

Consumer concern led to Congressional action. The new law requires manufacturers and importers to conduct strict safety tests—mostly done by independent testers—on toys before they can be placed on store shelves. It also places limits on the amount of lead that could be in products designed for children aged 12 or younger and the CPSC would also have the ability to continue to lower the amount of lead in toys should research indicate the need to do so.

Also created is a searchable database of consumer complaints about a toy’s safety you can access before buying the item.

The law sets new mandatory safety standards for items such as high chairs and strollers. Currently, most manufacturers only have to follow voluntary standards. In addition, the new law requires products to have tracking labels to help investigators determine the factory source of a defective or dangerous product.

New safety standards for all-terrain vehicles are also required, which may, according to the Wall Street Journal, provide U.S. manufacturers with a competitive advantage over those in China since they are better prepared to meet the new mandates.

Finally, the new law also substantially increases the size and budget for the chronically underfunded CPSC.

President George Bush signed the legislation into law August 14 and explained, “The new product safety legislation…is a victory for parents and consumers. New regulatory authorities and enforcement tools will make it easier for CPSC to find and recall unsafe products made around the world.”

The Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection works closely with the CPSC on product safety investigations. According to Bureau Director Jim Rabbitt, nine defective-product investigations conducted by his bureau in 2007 led to national recalls by the CPSC. Rabbitt noted he mostly supports the new federal law because, among other provisions, it gives states regulatory powers to help prevent unsafe products from reaching store shelves. However, he also noted the new federal statute also prevents states like Wisconsin from adopting stricter product-safety regulations than the national standards.

If you have a concern about a potentially unsafe product, you may report the item to the  Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection toll-free at 1-800-422-7128.

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