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CPSC Faces Challenges in Addressing Safety Hazards More Quickly, GAO Says

Monday, October 20, 2014
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

A recent Government Accountability Office report states that the Consumer Product Safety Commission faces challenges in responding to product safety risks and reviews the pros and cons of several options for improvements in this area. The report points out that the CPSC is responsible for ensuring the safety of thousands of consumer products (including imports), from children’s toys to off-road recreational vehicles, and that identifying and assessing new and emerging consumer product risks can present challenges. However, this report responds to questions raised in recent congressional hearings about the length of time the CPSC takes to address safety hazards.

The timeliness of the CPSC’s responses may be affected by several factors, the report states, including compliance actions that can involve litigation, reliance on voluntary standards, rulemaking procedures, restrictions on sharing information with the public and international agencies, and limited agency resources. For example, the Commission must defer to a voluntary standard if it determines that compliance with that standard would eliminate or adequately reduce the risk of injury and there is likely to be substantial compliance. However, because the laws do not establish a time frame for finalizing a voluntary standard, conflicting industry and consumer interests can delay its development, sometimes for years.

The report also points out that new and emerging product safety risks present some distinct challenges to the CPSC. For one, the agency was established to respond to risks after products have been introduced into market rather than before. For another, the number of imported consumer products continues to increase amid the growth of global supply chains that assemble products across a vast web of interconnected geographies. During 2012 more than 235,000 importers imported approximately $706.6 billion worth of consumer products under the CPSC’s jurisdiction, an average of nearly $2 billion per day. In addition, since 2008, four out of five product recalls in the U.S. have involved an imported product.

These trends have made strategies to prevent hazardous products from entering the marketplace a critical focus of the CPSC. Options that have been suggested for improving the agency’s capabilities in this area include the following.

- regulatory approaches designed to prevent hazardous products from entering the market (e.g., premarket approval)

- expanding the CPSC’s authority to use expedited rulemaking procedures similar to those authorized in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act for durable infant products

- enhancing the CPSC’s statutory authorities to identify hazardous products at ports of entry and prevent them from entering the marketplace

- additional funding for technology and staff with technical expertise in the areas of engineering, toxicology and public health to analyze product hazard data and conduct risk assessments

However, the report adds, these options require making trade-offs, such as balancing sometimes competing consumer and industry interests. For example, expanding the CPSC’s use of preventive approaches to consumer product safety could give the agency greater ability to prevent hazardous products from entering the market but could also inhibit market innovation and impose costs on manufacturers. Statutory changes, such as enhanced authority to address unsafe imports, could allow the Commission to address existing hazards in a more timely manner and prevent hazardous products from entering the market but could also create disadvantages for manufacturers by imposing costs and prolonging the time for some products to come to market. Improving the CPSC’s ability to analyze scientific and other data could help it respond to risks more quickly but may require enhanced resources in a constrained fiscal environment.

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