Triple Threat? The GAO Audits Saferproducts.gov

Three years ago, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission began to solicit the public’s advice and counsel on the development of a consumer complaint database, manufacturers and the purveyors of consumer products forecast the end of capitalism. The database would be full of false reports, besmirching the snowy reputations of good and humble companies, who existed only to serve their customers according to the highest standards of retail integrity. And as this pool of complaints spread and deepened, tort lawyers would cast their lines, hooking cases with no actual merit but heavy with potential to drive said good and humble companies out of existence.

They stamped their feet and waved their fists, but the database was mandated as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. A few rearguard actions were mounted to kill its funding, but they met with no greater success.

Saferproducts.gov debuted in March 2011. If you are afraid you missed the apocalypse, no worries. It didn’t happen. According to a rather mild – dare we say boring – Government Accounting Office report, the rumors of the free market’s demise at the hands of a consumer compliant database were greatly exaggerated. In fact, few consumers have actually used Saferproducts.gov to report an incident – only 12,030 from April 2011 to January 2013. The GAO, which conducted the performance audit from July 2012 to March 2013, found that more than 97 percent who used the website to report an alleged product failure identified themselves as consumers. In more than half the cases, the reporter identified him or herself – or a relative (parent, child, spouse) as the victim.

Most of the consumers who test drove the website for the GAO auditors found it easy to use. None of the group had heard of Saferproducts.gov before, and only a few understood the basic mission of the CPSC. Some were put off by requests that reporters register with the website. A few suggested helpfully that the website would be more aptly named Unsafeproducts.gov. (Now would that go over big with industry.)  

CPSC Considers Slight Change to Policy of Announcing Defects; World Ends

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a policy change to the way it publicly confirms that it has opened a defect investigation, leading the manufacturing community to issue a DEFCON 1 alert.

Currently, under the Section 6b of the Consumer Product Safety Act, manufacturers have a lot of control over what negative information the CPSC can disclose about them. The CPSC cannot disclose information that falls within the envelope of trade secrets or “misleading” and “inaccurate” information.  The CPSC can disclose the existence of an investigation, under procedures designed to ensure the accuracy of whatever information is made public. The CPSC gives manufacturers 10 days to review any statements about their products, and typically the two entities release agreed-upon language.

“What is very important to take into account is that we adhere to 6b,” says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. “It is not a wall to disclosure. It’s a hurdle. As the Chairman (Inez Tennenbaum) has stated: “We do follow that law and we follow it in very prescribed ways.”

 In the past, the CPSC waited until the press took an interest in an alleged defect to initiate the 10-day review period. The proposed policy change, explained to manufacturers and their trade associations at a CPSC Safety Academy held in Bethesda, Maryland late last month, was an alternative to “approaching a company in a rushed situation, in which the media is asking for immediate confirmation, which at times we cannot give because the company is given 10 days to respond. We are considering a policy approach that starts the clock at an earlier stage. The same rights are given, but we prepare ahead of time for potential requests.”

The National Association of Manufacturers, lost no time in firing off a letter with apocalyptic overtones:

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