In light of the congressional battle over the financial state of the nation, some lawmakers are looking to eliminate spending wherever they can – sometimes seemingly at whatever the ultimate cost to public safety. The House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill in June 2011 that would eliminate the $3 million funding for SaferProducts.gov, the nation’s only government consumer product safety complaint database. Advocates are concerned that the savings would be offset by the losses in consumer education and safety.
Section 6A of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 ordered the Consumer Safety Products Commission (CSPC) to create of an online database by March 2011 where consumers could submit reports regarding unsafe products and others could search for information about the safety of various products. In November 2010, the CSPC voted on the final rules governing the scope of the database. The website began posting reports a few months later.
Lawmakers looking to cut funding for the website argue that the site is detrimental to businesses and does not protect consumers in the way that it is supposed to. Jennifer Hing, communications director of the House Appropriations Committee, argued the site is “an example of a poorly executed regulatory policy that does not protect consumers and hurts business at a time when industries need our help the most.”
Other lawmakers claim that the information posted on the site will not be verified and may mislead consumers. However, the CPSC says that of the 1,600 reports consumers have filed on the site, those investigating the reports found only 104 of them to have inaccuracies, the most common of which is citation of an incorrect manufacturer.
Once a consumer files a report on the site, the CPSC has five days in which to contact the manufacturer. After ten days pass, the Commission posts the report along with any comments that it has received from the manufacturer. In order to help the Commission ensure the accuracy of the report, the consumer must describe the product, name the manufacturer, detail any injuries that the product caused and avow that the report is true and accurate to the best of the reporter’s knowledge. The Commission will investigate anonymous complaints, but will only publish on the site those reports that include the consumer’s name and mailing address.
Impact on Consumer Safety
CPSC officials say that there has been strong public support for the database. Some consumers have even learned that the manufacturer has recalled a product about which they are filing a report and have received instructions on how to return the product for a refund.
The site represents a departure from the Commission’s past practices in dealing with consumer complaints, wherein the Commission kept the complaints about defective products secret until after a full investigation in order to prevent damaging the reputation of a manufacturer or a product. The drawback to that practice was that products the government knew to be dangerous stayed in people’s homes for months or even years.
If the government cuts the funding for SaferProducts.gov, the country will almost certainly see a return to the days when information regarding product safety was slow to disseminate, which allowed dangerous products to stay in circulation far too long. Without the website, the only way for consumers to obtain similar information would be to file a request with the CPSC under the Freedom of Information Act; a process which often takes months. Furthermore, companies can block such requests if they cite confidentiality or proprietary business interests.
In the internet era, it is natural for people to go online to look for information regarding products that they believe are unsafe or to tell others about unsafe products. Manufacturers have an obligation to make safe products but they do not always meet that obligation and consumers need to remain educated in order to prevent injuries. SaferProducts.gov helps meet that need. Hopefully, the government will ultimately prioritize public safety over budget cuts.