A shot in the arm for consumer safety

Congress to overhaul CPSCIt was just about a year ago that the first of 2007's major recalls began. Tainted pet food was scary and shocking to the country's millions of pet owners. (My own dogs had been eating the food that was recalled, and in the midst of the whole debacle the eldest grew sick and passed away. We'll never know if it was the food or if it was just his time.)

Little did we all know that pet food was just the beginning, and before the end of the year, millions of children's toys would be pulled from the shelves for dangers as obvious and as unconsidered as high lead content and small magnets. From a product safety standpoint as well as a customer loyalty standpoint, 2007 was a hell of a year.

But good news may be on the horizon: After months of slow, bit-by-bit decision making, both the House and the Senate have passed bills that would revamp the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC could do with a shot in the arm; there are fewer than 400 employees tasked with protecting the entire nation from faulty products, and worse, the CPSC has never had much authority in terms of recalling products in a timely fashion. The CPSC's temporary authority expired earlier this year, leaving them unable to initiate mandatory recalls. At the moment, we're essentially depending on industry to police themselves. Or maybe we always have been.

I haven't had a chance to look at the two versions of the bill myself, but according to media reports the Senate version is the stronger of the two. Both bills would increase the CPSC's budget and authority and providing funding to update the Commission's decrepit testing facilities, and both would effectively ban lead in all children's products (a move which, you'll remember, acting CPSC Chief Nancy Nord opposed). They differ primarily in the amount of power given to Attorneys General to uphold federal safety laws and in the protections they offer for corporate whistle-blowers -- the latter argument is interesting, since President Bush's position is that offering protections would produce a lot of unnecessary litigation. I could be wrong, but if someone feels strongly enough about a situation to blow the proverbial whistle, is it likely to be unnecessary?

So, hope for stronger consumer safety protections is on the horizon. Don't hold your breath, though -- if the hold this bill up as long as they have the Farm Bill, we've got a while to wait.

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