The $3 million searchable database publicizes complaints from virtually anyone who can provide details about a safety problem connected with any of the 15,000 kinds of consumer goods regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That agency manages the database, which went live in March.
The database was among several consumer protections passed by Congress after a record was set in 2007 for the number of recalled products, many of them imports aimed at children.
The CPSC already collects reports of defective products from a wide range of sources, including consumers, health-care providers, death certificates and media accounts.
But most of that information had been shielded from public view. The only way for consumers to access it was to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
And that took time. The agency is required by law to consult with the manufacturer before releasing information about products, and the company can protest or sue to stop disclosure. If the CPSC thinks a dangerous product should be pulled from the market, it must negotiate a recall with the manufacturer, a process that can take weeks or months. Meanwhile, unwitting shoppers may continue to buy the item.
Now when the CPSC receives a complaint, it has five days to notify the manufacturer, which in turn has 10 days to respond before both the complaint and the manufacturer’s response are posted on the database.
“The whole idea is to provide more useful information, faster, to consumers,” said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.
But major manufacturing groups say the database is ripe for abuse, and that bad actors can ruin brand names by posting inaccurate information about products. They are especially concerned that most of the complaints are not first vetted by the CPSC before they are made public.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) sponsored a bill that passed the House in February to defund the database. He tried but failed to attach it as a policy rider to the continuing resolution to fund the government that was agreed to in a last-minute budget deal last week.
“There are a lot of competing interests and it got knocked out,” said Pompeo, who is backed by groups representing manufacturers.
The Republicans did persuade Democrats to include a provision in the continuing resolution that directs the Government Accountability Office to study how the database is functioning and report back to Congress within 180 days.
And Pompeo is not declaring defeat. He and other Republicans want to amend the 2008 consumer law and change the rules governing the database to allow fewer people to file complaints, give manufacturers more time to respond, and require the CPSC to more carefully vet the reports before posting them. Those changes were considered at a hearing last week by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
Consumer groups are opposed to any changes to the database. In a letter to the subcommittee, 22 consumer groups said the proposed reforms place “onerous burdens” on those reporting a safety problem and would keep “valuable safety information out of the hands of parents and caregivers.”
Since the database was launched, the CPSC has received more than 600 complaints and found that 44 were inaccurate, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said. Of those, most were cases in which the complaint misidentified the manufacturer, and the agency did not post those erroneous complaints on the Web site, he said. The agency is getting about 30 complaints a day, he said. It is designed to handle only safety complaints, not gripes about reliability or performance.