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Product Safety Overhaul Agreement Reached

Feb 18, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP An agreement reached on a consumer product safety  bill in the US Senate could allow for the first major overhaul of the nation's consumer product safety system in decades.  The deal, spearheaded by Senators Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas.), Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), addressed last year's recalls of millions of Chinese-made toys.  A Senate vote is expected early March.  Product-safety legislation passed the House on December 19th, but a similar bill in the Senate was under negotiation since January.

There was general agreement on increasing the Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) annual budget to $155.9 million by fiscal year 2015 (it was $63 million in fiscal year 2007) and adding new safeguards such as mandatory independent laboratory tests on toys before they are sold and tighter lead limits on all children's products.  Lawmakers, lobbyists, and consumer advocates differed over how to ease restrictions on the CPSC's ability to notify consumers and how much authority to allow state attorneys general to enforce federal product safety laws.

Under the bill, the CPSC can alert consumers about product hazards more quickly if they determined there were pressing health and safety reasons.  Today, the CPSC must provide manufacturers with at least 30 days to review information and companies can take the CPSC to court to block disclosures.  Under the bill, manufacturers would retain the right to sue.  Consumer advocates won a provision to increase public access to consumer complaints.  Currently, the CPSC and manufacturers can be aware of a problem without informing consumers.  The bill requires the CPSC to create a database of complaints and extends whistle-blower protection to manufacturers' employees, allowing them to file complaints about their employers with the Labor Department if they are fired or punished for exposing unsafe products or practices.  The Senate still has to work with the House, which didn't include a complaint database or whistle-blower protection in its bill.

Diana Degette (D-Colorado), vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee called the differences "minor."  Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America said the measure contained "significant improvements over the status quo" and Ellen Bloom, director of federal policy for Consumers Union, said it "adds important new tools to the CPSC toolbox and moves us closer to finally fixing our broken product safety system."
Public Citizen president, Joan Claybrook, disagreed, saying the Senate bill leaves the CPSC with "far less authority than most regulatory agencies."  Manufacturers were also opposed.  "We continue to have serious concerns about several of the provisions in this legislation," Rosario Palmieri, spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said adding that attorney general enforcement, whistle-blower protection, and information disclosure would "not improve product safety or strengthen the CPSC, but instead promote litigation and lead to much more delay in taking action to address unsafe products and protecting the public."

The CPSC has been operating under limited authority since February 3rd, when a temporary extension of its two-member quorum ended.  The panel requires three members for a quorum but has had only two since July 2006.  The House and Senate bills would grant another extension.

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