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Consumer Product Safety Commission to launch public database of complaints

By Lyndsey Layton
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.

"This is a world of sunshine that we think will be tremendously beneficial to consumers," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel at Consumers Union.

C. Gibson Vance, president of the association of trial lawyers, said in written comments submitted to the CPSC that the database will amount to an early-warning system. He pointed to the example of toxic drywall imported from China.

"Had this database been available, both the CPSC and American consumers likely would have been able to determine that there was, in fact, a systemic problem with drywall from China and stopped using it," he wrote. "Without this database in place, it took the CPSC and the general public approximately three years to conclude that there was in fact a problem."

Rachel Weintraub, a lawyer and director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America, cited the example of drop-side cribs, which were banned after they were linked to a string of infant deaths.

"With cribs, we know that consumers reported safety incidents involving drop-side cribs to manufacturers and were told 'Oh, we don't know of any other incidents', when in fact they knew of many," she said. "This will create a new generation of more educated consumers."

But for industry groups, the new system is plagued by troubling rules, including that it allows complaints from a broad array of people, including trial lawyers and consumer groups, even if they lack direct knowledge of the defective product.

"This can create a database full of misinformation, that will be of less use to the consumer," Palmieri said. What's more, despite a disclaimer on the database that the CPSC cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the complaints, it will carry the imprimatur of the federal government, he said. "When the CPSC as a government organization publishes this information . . . it gives it weight and credibility."

Under the new system, when a consumer files a complaint, the CPSC has five days to notify the manufacturer, which in turn has 10 days to respond. A company can challenge the complaint as false, argue that it will give away a trade secret, or submit a response. The response will be published alongside the complaint in the database.

If a company says a complaint is false or would disclose confidential business information, the CPSC will decide whether to withhold or publish the complaint.

Those safeguards will protect companies, agency officials said.

Anyone filing a complaint must identify themselves, but that information will not be published and would be disclosed to the manufacturer only with the consumer's permission.

The database will not include peeves about reliability or quality, only information about defects that can cause injury or death. And it is restricted to the 15,000 types of consumer goods overseen by the CPSC, which do not include food, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, tobacco, automobiles or tires.

Only one other federal agency - the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - keeps a similar database. That database allows consumers to post complaints about cars, tires or child car seats but does not permit manufacturers an opportunity to post a rebuttal.

CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum says the database will be rolled out on time despite pushback from the business community. "The consumer database is on budget and on schedule to be launched in March," she said last week.

The agency, which received about 16,000 consumer complaints in 2009, does not know how many to expect in the new system, according to spokesman Scott Wolfson.

Tenenbaum and the other two Democrats on the CPSC trumpeted the final version of the database as a powerful tool for consumers, while the two Republicans, Anne Northup and Nancy Nord, were opposed.

After the vote, Northrup released a statement that said the CPSC opted to create a database that "wastes taxpayer money, confuses and misleads consumers, raises prices, kills jobs, and damages the reputations of safe and responsible manufacturers."

Nord said the move was "another example of poorly conceived and excessive regulation that, sadly, has become the norm at CPSC."

The database, which is scheduled to be launched March 11, will be available at www.saferproducts.gov.

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