Critics call U.S. consumer agency toothless

WASHINGTON Thu Sep 6, 2007 3:27pm EDT

An undated image of the Barbie dream puppy house. The agency charged with protecting the American public from dangerous consumer products is toothless and understaffed, according to its critics. REUTERS/U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission/Handout

An undated image of the Barbie dream puppy house. The agency charged with protecting the American public from dangerous consumer products is toothless and understaffed, according to its critics.

Credit: Reuters/U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission/Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The agency charged with protecting the American public from dangerous consumer products is toothless and understaffed, according to its critics.

These critics say that it would take a complete overhaul of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission's mission and a huge increase in its $63 million budget to give it the clout needed to scrutinize the trillions of dollars in goods that are made in or imported into the United States each year.

While this may not happen, Congress is expected to take some steps to strengthen the agency after a barrage of recent recalls of Chinese-made toys, tires and other consumer goods.

Most recently, on Tuesday, Mattel Inc said it would recall more than 800,000 toys for excessive lead levels, its third such recall this summer.

Experts point out that the CPSC was designed to cooperate with corporations rather than police them. And the fines it can levy are limited to $1.25 million even for companies with billions of dollars in annual revenues.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, says the agency is outmanned and outgunned.

"The laws are written sadly in a way to make it next to impossible to protect consumers," he said. "401 (CPSC) employees today trying to manage trillions of dollars in products ... Even with a strong law, they do not have enough cops on the beat."

Durbin has proposed a bill to increase the maximum penalty for companies failing to quickly report hazards to the CPSC to $20 million -- perhaps resolving at least one of the issues.

His bill would also increase the CPSC's funding to $70 million in fiscal 2008, which begins on October 1, and to $100 million by 2012.

The commission itself has asked for fines to be higher, but only to a maximum of $10 million.

"Ten million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, even for the largest companies," said CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese. "The idea of a civil penalty isn't to put companies out of business; it's to hold them accountable for failing to meet very specific obligations."

The CPSC has predicted more recalls in coming months as companies test toys that they had previously believed safe.

AN AGENCY AT HALF STAFF

Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, said the CPSC has seen its budget cut so drastically over the last 30 years that the number of full-time staffers has dropped from 978 in 1980 to the 401 allowed in next year's budget.

She supports a second bill, also proposed by Durbin, which would require testing of all toys for children aged 5 or under.

"When we talk about solutions to this problem, number one is resources and number two is independent third-party testing," said Weintraub.

Ralph Nader, who first made his name as a consumer advocate four decades ago, said Durbin's bill was a good start -- especially the increased fine. "A $20 million fine is more in the ballpark," he said.

And Nader agreed with Durbin that much of the commission's weakness lay in how it was set up by Congress in the 1970s to work with industry, rather than to regulate it.

"They put the CPSC into a consensual mode," he told Reuters. "It doesn't have much bargaining power. It doesn't have much leverage. It has authority deficiencies, budgetary deficiencies, statutory deficiencies."

The three-member commission has been working under an acting chairman since July 2006. In May, U.S. President George W. Bush's nominee to head the organization withdrew. The nominee, Michael Baroody, was a top lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers, which had fought to limit product liability lawsuits.

The CPSC is also short a commissioner but has continued to work under a law that allows two commissioners to make up a quorum rather than the legally mandated three.

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