Publicly accessible product safety database hits House roadblock

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 8:27 PM

The first-ever government database of product safety complaints, which is scheduled to go public in two weeks, could be scrapped as a result of a budget amendment offered by a freshman member of the House.

As part of the spending bill that passed the House on Feb. 19, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) won support for a measure to withhold money to implement the system, which is set to launch March 11. The database, which was welcomed by consumer advocates, would make public thousands of complaints received by the Consumer Product Safety Commission each year about safety problems with products, from table lamps to baby strollers.

Pompeo, backed by groups representing manufacturers, said the database would be filled with fictitious or inaccurate claims and place new financial burdens on U.S. businesses.

"This will drive jobs overseas," Pompeo said during floor debate on his amendment. "It will increase the cost for manufacturers and consumers."

While Congress continues to negotiate over a budget plan, consumer advocates are scrambling to save the new system.

"There's a lot of support for the database, but we don't know how the dynamic is ultimately going to play out," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for Consumer Federation of America. "This is really a last-ditch effort by manufacturers to hold on to this great situation they have right now, where information is not getting out to the public."

The database, created at a cost of about $3 million, could revolutionize the way people make buying decisions, consumer advocates say. It is limited to complaints about safety and does not deal with product reliability or performance.

The new system is a key feature of a landmark consumer product safety law that was overwhelmingly approved by Congress in 2008.

The CPSC 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. 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 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 used to take years and now takes weeks or months. Meanwhile, unwitting shoppers may continue to buy the item.

At a speech last week before an international consumer product safety organization, CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum said she envisioned the database as an early warning system for consumers.

"If a mom uses the search function on the site, sees a series of reports of harm about a product she bought for her child and decides to take the product away from her child, while, behind the scenes, we are working to finalize a recall - that is a good thing in my opinion," Tenenbaum said.

But Pompeo and industry groups say the CPSC designed the database with too many loopholes, including the fact that it will accept complaints from a broad array of people without direct knowledge of the product, such as trial lawyers and consumer groups.

"I just think this is a plaintiff's bar dream," Pompeo said recently during a congressional hearing. He said he was concerned that people could post inaccurate claims and tarnish the reputation of a particular company - an argument that has been made by manufacturing trade groups.

CPSC officials say they have built in safeguards to prevent such abuse and have balanced the interests of consumers and manufacturers. The agency had a "soft launch" of the database in February and, of the 900 complaints that were logged, four were determined to be inaccurate, Tenenbaum testified before Congress this month.

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