The Burden of Safety

Valerie Campbell


March 1, 2011


When clearing snow from my driveway, I consider a few risks: slipping on ice, a stray snowball to the face from the kid who lives next door, failing to dislodge my car quickly enough to beat rush-hour traffic. I have rarely given any thought to the possibility of an exploding snowblower. Yet this past holiday season, Honda reminded us that we cannot dismiss the hazards of seemingly innocuous consumer products when it recalled more than 18,000 snowblowers after receiving 90 reports of leaky fuel joints.

Despite their less-than-sensational media appearances, defective consumer goods can be deadly and often hit close to home, landing in your local McDonald's, like recalled Shrek Forever After drinking cups, or on the shelves of your neighborhood drug store, as with recalled Rolaids Softchews. Various federal agencies seek to reduce the number of harmful products on the market, and the human and economic tolls they cost, by imposing more -- or at least stricter -- regulations on manufacturers.

While most of the thousands of recalls issued each year barely make a blip on the radar, it will be hard to soon forget last year's notorious salmonella outbreaks that prompted a nationwide recall of more than 500 million eggs. During the crisis, inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notified consumers of the outbreak as they visited hundreds of egg producers, conducting health inspections, suggesting recalls and giving the green light when it was safe for companies to begin shipping eggs again. But the FDA had limited clout in the matter and was only able to advise the guilty parties. Egg producers had the final say in whether they would risk the liability of continuing to sell a contaminated product.

This process may soon undergo vast changes with the recent passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Margaret Hamburg touts the bill as "historic legislation" that "significantly enhances FDA's ability to oversee the millions of food products coming into the United States from other countries each year."

The FSMA mandates regular FDA inspections and requires suppliers to keep detailed records of their safety protocols and food origins. Furthermore, for the first time the FDA will have the power to issue direct recalls. The bill's proponents hope to lower the number of Americans affected by food-borne illnesses -- about 48 million annually -- by increasing the FDA's power in emergencies and demanding more responsibility from suppliers. But numerous Republicans and business owners have denounced the bill as an over-reaction that will blight organic farmers and smaller food producers as they flounder within the new bureaucratic framework.

This overhaul in food safety policy only represents a fraction of the product supply market, however. Most consumer goods fall within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), another federal agency amending its regulations and procedures with hopes of making the discovery of defective products more timely and effective. In 2008, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which increased the CPSC's budget, mandated tougher product testing and promised stiffer sanctions for noncompliance, particularly when it comes to children's products.

Advocates have cheered the CPSC's decision to specifically address those products that reach America's youth, especially considering the outrage incited by China's 2007 recall of more than 1.5 million toys that may have been tainted with lead. The sweeping toy defect sent shock waves through the nation because, as the world's largest exporter, China manufactures 45% of all consumer products -- and 90% of all toys -- sold in the United States.

In light of these numbers and recent safety scandals, including toxic Chinese drywall that was installed in thousands of U.S. homes, the federal government took yet another proactive step to improve product safety by establishing its first overseas consumer product safety office in China, which CPSC head Inez Tenenbaum hopes will "reduce the number of recalls and keep our consumers safe, and also prevent the loss of revenue and damage to a manufacturer's brand." The CPSC introduced this project more than two years after the FDA set up its own Chinese office in 2008, the same year China issued a recall on melamine-contaminated milk that killed four children.

While the new office has its dissenters, a different landmark CPSC reform is attracting greater criticism: the Public Consumer Product Database. As outlined by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the CPSC will compile the grievances it receives from thousands of disgruntled consumers each year and post them online where anyone can see the public complaints.

On the one hand, the database has the potential to enhance the CPSC's ability to communicate with both consumers and manufacturers, expediting the process of identifying and recalling faulty products as well as helping consumers make informed buying decisions. Under the aegis of the U.S. government, the new database will present consumers with a legitimacy not present in the many similar, unofficial public forums on the web.

However, manufacturers fear that the government's seal of approval may be a double-edged sword because consumers may take for granted the validity of posted information. In the CPSC's rush to disseminate information that could protect shoppers from dangerous products, misled consumers or rival corporations could submit inaccurate information that unfairly taints a company's reputation; such misinformation, furthermore, would compromise the CPSC's mission to educate consumers. According to the CPSC's guidelines, it will notify a manufacturer of a complaint, who in turn has 10 days to challenge it; this response will be published beside the complaint on the website. The database officially launches this month.

It remains to be seen if these latest federal innovations will revolutionize industry or waste taxpayers' dollars and burden American business. But when I am back in the driveway next December, with snowblower in tow, perhaps I will have a better sense of exactly what I am getting myself into.