Group Deplores Delays in Notice on Unsafe Products

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008

An advocacy group criticized the Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday for sometimes taking six months or more to notify the public about dangerous products, and complained that it took some companies nearly three years to report hazards to the agency.

The District-based consumer group Public Citizen analyzed 46 cases from 2002 to 2007, all of which resulted in recalls and involved companies that were penalized for late reports. In one case, the agency did not alert the public about an all-terrain vehicle with a faulty oil line that caused 42 fires and injured 18 people for more than two years after getting a report from the manufacturer.

"In these cases where reports are coming in so late, you'd think the agency would release information quicker. Instead, it waited months and even years," said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.

The National Association of Manufacturers, a business trade group, called the report inaccurate because Public Citizen examined only cases that were on the public record. The cases were on the record because the CPSC had fined the companies -- a total of $20.8 million -- for not reporting product defects in a timely manner. Those cases represent only 2 percent of the more than 2,000 recalls that the CPSC oversaw during that period.

"Public Citizen has produced a misleading analysis by cherry-picking the worst-case exceptions to product-defect reporting," NAM spokesman Rosario Palmieri said.

CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese said the agency "works to notify consumers as early as possible once the hazard has been identified and the means to a remedy exists."

Sixty percent of the 450 recalls the CPSC oversees each year are "fast-track" recalls, in which companies report a problem and agree to a recall right away, agency spokesman Scott Wolfson said. And 90 percent of fast-track recalls are carried out within 20 working days, according to the CPSC's 2007 performance and accountability report. In exchange for the fast turnaround, the CPSC skips a preliminary evaluation of the product, which manufacturers worry could be used against them in consumer lawsuits.

Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said the study's narrow scope reflected the constraints the CPSC faces in getting safety information to the public. The group was not able to examine recalls for which there was no fine because the agency does not typically release such information, even under the Freedom of Information Act.

"That is the best information we could get," Claybrook said.

Businesses have the right to review any information the CPSC puts out, including recall announcements, in which their product can be identified. If companies do not like what the agency plans to disclose, they can take the CPSC to court to stop it. While the commission has faced few such suits, the threat of legal action means in practice it negotiates with manufacturers over what it can disclose. Business groups say the law prevents the release of inaccurate and misleading information and trade secrets.

The CPSC's ability to disclose product hazards is a major sticking point in negotiations in Congress over legislation to overhaul the nation's product safety system.

Consumer groups are lobbying for a Senate proposal that would make it easier for the agency to alert the public to product hazards and eliminate the right to sue over disclosures. Manufacturers prefer a bill that has passed the House that would retain companies' right to sue but allows the commission to quickly notify the public if it finds there are pressing reasons.

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