Products That Miss Safety Standards Sent Overseas by U.S. Companies

By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

U.S. manufacturers are increasingly exporting goods, including toys and pacifiers, that do not meet domestic safety standards, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Companies notified the agency 97 times last year that they planned to export goods that did not meet some aspect of U.S. safety standards. That is up from 57 times in 2002, according to the agency.

Among the types of goods exported were toys, lighters, fireworks, clothing, chemicals, carpets and pacifiers. They were shipped to Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, Colombia, the Czech Republic and the Philippines, according to the CPSC. The agency did not identify the companies involved or reveal what standards the goods violate.

The CPSC has little influence over substandard exports except to notify a country that the goods are coming -- a limitation that one member of the commission argues weakens U.S. bargaining power with other countries.

Reports of unsafe food and products from China, including toxic toothpaste and toys with lead-based paint, have turned U.S. consumers' attention to the safety of imports. A presidential panel is scheduled to release a plan next month to improve import safety, while proposals from Congress have included temporarily stopping imports from China and a wholesale reorganization of the country's food-safety oversight system.

"Our agency, through our governing statutes, cannot claim much moral authority over the Chinese, or any other foreign country, when it comes to our own export policy," Commissioner Thomas H. Moore of the CPSC said in a list of legislative proposals regarding the agency. "Our export policy is based on a desire to see U.S. manufacturers be able to compete in foreign countries in terms of price and marketability, not safety."

Some consumer-advocacy groups agree that allowing U.S. manufacturers to export goods that do not meet U.S. standards not only puts foreigners at risk but also hurts the United States' ability to force other countries to comply with its rules. It "knocks us off any 'world's safety policeman' soapbox we claim to own," said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "It places foreign consumers at risk from our dangerous products."

Officials of the embassies of Ireland and New Zealand said they were not aware of such exports. Ireland's National Consumer Agency "would be very concerned if unsafe products are being placed on the Irish or European market," Myles Geiran, spokesman for the Irish embassy, said in a written statement.

A spokesman for the Czech Embassy said officials were not aware of any recent notifications of such shipments. Spokesmen at the Colombian, Philippine and Belgian embassies could not be reached.

Rick Locker, general counsel of the Toy Industry Association, said companies avoid exporting goods that violate significant safety standards. Typically, he said, the goods that are exported despite being in violation of CSPC standards do not meet technical requirements, such as packages that carry product warnings in the wrong typeface or pacifiers with handles that are too long.

An exporting company must consider whether it can still make a profit by repackaging a product for the foreign market, Locker said. "They have to determine that it is worth their while to do this. Most do not find it worth their while to recondition or repackage products."

Many companies file notifications even if the goods they are exporting are not covered by the CPSC's mandatory standards, he said. Companies do not have to notify CPSC if they are exporting sample sizes that do not meet the standards, or drugs without childproof caps, he said.

Regulations apply to goods that do not meet U.S. mandatory standards and have been recalled but haven't reached the retail market. The rules apply only to violations of CPSC's mandatory standards, not the many voluntary industry standards.

A company that intends to export substandard goods must give the CPSC 30 days' notice before shipping them. "We are just following the mandate of Congress," said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson.

Recommending that Congress consider giving the CPSC more power over exports, Moore said "a 'do as I say, not as I do' policy is hard to sell."

"Given this background, it is somewhat hypocritical of us to berate any other country for not requiring their manufacturers to abide by the myriad U.S. mandatory and voluntary product-safety standards," Moore said.

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