Consumer Product Safety Commission to launch public database of complaints

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 12:59 AM

The federal government is poised for the first time to make public thousands of complaints it receives each year about safety problems with various products, from power tools to piggy banks.

The compilation of consumer complaints, set to be launched online in March by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has been hailed by consumer advocates as a resource that will revolutionize the way people make buying decisions.

But major manufacturing and industry groups have raised concerns about the public database, saying it may be filled with fictitious slams against their brands. Competitors or others with political motives could post inaccurate claims, business leaders say, and the agency will not be able to investigate most of the complaints.

Arguing that this could present a new burden in an already difficult economic environment, they are working behind the scenes to delay or revamp the project.

"We're not opposed to a database," said Rosario Palmieri, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers. "We're opposed to a database that's full of inaccurate information."

Agency officials say they have built in safeguards to prevent such abuse and have carefully balanced the interests of consumers and manufacturers. On Tuesday, they will offer the public an online preview of how the database will work.

The new system was created as part of a landmark consumer product safety law passed by Congress in 2008. It has taken shape amid bitter partisan divisions at the CPSC, with Democratic appointees backing it and Republican appointees deriding it as a waste of taxpayer money that could damage businesses.

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 is shielded from public view. Until now, the only way for consumers to access safety complaints is to file a public-records request with the CPSC. The agency is then required by law to consult with the manufacturer before releasing information about their products, and the company can protest or sue to stop disclosure.

If the agency thinks a dangerous product should be pulled from the market, it must negotiate a recall with the manufacturer, a process that can take months or years.

Meanwhile, unwitting shoppers can continue to buy the item.

Under the new system, a complaint filed by a consumer will be posted for anyone to read within 15 days.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company