For decades, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has gathered a trove of complaints about potentially dangerous products, from cribs to Chinese-made drywall. But for the most part, the information has not been made public because of a federal law that requires a manufacturer’s approval before it can be released.
On Wednesday, the commission is scheduled to vote to create a new, publicly accessible database of safety complaints that is intended to make it easier for consumers to learn about problems with a product.
But even as the vote looms, the proposal remains mired in a partisan rift among the five members of the commission.
The agency’s two Republican commissioners have waged a last-ditch effort to alter the database in ways they say would be more fair to manufacturers, but that consumer groups and at least one Democratic commissioner say would significantly weaken it.
The Republicans last week blocked a final vote on the database and posted an alternative proposal on the agency’s Web site that would restrict who could register a complaint, among other things. The proposal was removed by the agency’s staff, then later restored.
Bob Adler, one of the commission’s three Democratic members, said opponents were trying to shield manufacturers from greater public scrutiny.
“Some folks are worried more about lost sales and not worried enough about lost souls,” Adler said. With Democrats outnumbering Republicans 3 to 2 on the board, the proposal is expected to pass.
"There was no database backin the '90s where I could learn if other parents had been through this."
As proposed, the database would go live at SaferProducts.gov in March. It would allow visitors to browse safety-related complaints about various products while giving manufacturers the ability to post replies and, if they can prove a complaint is inaccurate, have it removed. Parents, for instance, could scroll through the database before purchasing strollers, cribs or toys to see if others have reported problems with them.
Michele Witte, a Long Island woman, said such a database might have helped prevent the 1997 death of her 10-month-old son, Tyler, who became entrapped in a drop-side crib. Witte said she had purchased the crib because it was advertised as being safe; only after her son’s death did she learn that other children had died in drop-side cribs, too.
“There was no database back in the ’90s where I could learn if other parents had been through this,” she said. “I believed my son was an isolated case.”
The Republican commissioners want to limit complaints to people with first-hand knowledge of a product hazard, like parents and health care workers; they are also seeking stronger vetting of false or misleading complaints.
“The commission’s proposal allows anything from anybody to go up on the public database,” said Nancy Nord, one of the Republican commissioners, who wants to ensure that consumers receive accurate information.
The database was authorized by Congress as part of a 2008 law intended to give the Consumer Product Safety Commission — long maligned for its tepid oversight — more teeth.
Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a similar database, called SaferCar.gov, in which consumers can file safety complaints about automobiles.
Under the commission’s proposal, the public could use the database to quickly report and find complaints about unsafe products. The agency’s current rules make it difficult to obtain such information without a manufacturer’s consent and typically require filing a Freedom of Information Act request, a process that can take months, even years.
“It’s a slow death,” said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. “That information never gets out in the public.”
But some businesses and their trade groups are concerned that any online database could become a government-sponsored bulletin board for bogus reports and merchant-bashing.
The Republican commissioners, Nord and Anne Northup, have balked at some of the proposed regulations for the database, which were written by the agency’s staff.
For example, Nord said, there is too much leeway in who can file a complaint: “users of consumer products, family members, relatives, parents, guardians, friends, attorneys, investigators, professional engineers, agents of a user of a consumer product, and observers of the consumer products being used.”
She worries that plaintiff’s lawyers and competitors could post bogus information to gain an edge. In addition, Nord said the proposal emphasized quick posting of complaints and was not clear enough about how disputes would be handled.
“The problem is, there might be a tendency to post it and forget it,” she said. “Having just a grab bag of junk that has not been investigated seems to not be in the consumer’s interest.”
The commission chairwoman, Inez Tenenbaum, disputed the idea that manufacturers’ concerns had not been properly considered. She said the agency offered numerous forums for comment and some of those ideas were incorporated into the final proposal. “We have been abundantly fair,” Tenenbaum said.
The Republican counterproposal was taken down from the agency’s Web site because the formal period for comment was over, staff members said.
Consumer advocates suggested the opponents were trying to weaken the database to protect business interests.
“They have a great deal now, and I think they are trying to maintain the status quo by levying these unfounded arguments,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America.
Under the current proposal, complaints would include a description of the harm, or the risk of harm, as well as a description of the product, the name of the manufacturer, contact information and an affirmation that the submitter is telling the truth. The submitter’s name would not appear on the database and would be provided to manufacturers only if the complainant agreed.
The commission would have five days to forward the complaint to the manufacturer, which would in turn have 10 days to review it and respond. If a manufacturer could prove to the commission staff that the information was inaccurate or contained confidential business information, the commission could redact part of the report or not post it.
But Nord said the proposal remained far too vague. She cited the recent case of Pampers Dry Max, made by Procter & Gamble , in which thousands of parents asserted that the diapers were causing their babies to get a rash. A commission investigation found no link between the diapers and the rashes.
“We would have posted all these complaints about them even though they proved to be wrong,” Nord said.
Adler, the Democratic commissioner, said the database was not meant to be a legal forum like a court but more like a catalog of consumer experiences. He noted that a disclaimer on the database said the commission did not guarantee its accuracy.
“ ‘I put my baby in a diaper and my baby developed a rash.’ That goes up. It’s an early warning system to alert other consumers,” Adler said. “This is a balancing act between consumer protection and manufacturers’ protection. I think the tie goes to consumers.”