Retailers to Face More Product Safety Accountability, CPSC Head Says

Following a year of record toy recalls and concerns over defective Chinese imports, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) will soon start subjecting retailers to increased scrutiny.  Nancy Nord, acting chair of the commission, said yesterday that the change in emphasis will come once product safety legislation recently passed by Congress becomes law.

When the CPSC was formed in 1973, the vast majority of consumer products sold in the US were manufactured in this country.   That fact made it far easier for inspectors from the CPSC to check to make sure manufacturers where following safety standards.  But today, most of the 15,000 products under the CPSC’s jurisdiction are made overseas, making such checks on manufacturers difficult.

This year, the cost of lax oversight of foreign manufacturers has become apparent.   Toys, tires, dog food and other imports –mostly made in China – have all been recalled. Many of the toys contained dangerous amounts of lead, while others were made with hazardous magnets that could seriously injure children if they were swallowed.  The recalls have resulted in several legislative initiatives that would give the CPSC more funding and authority if they become law.

Yesterday, at a meeting of the National Press Club, Nord said that the new product safety legislation puts more responsibility for product safety on retailers.  She said the retailers that sell products have “the ultimate responsibility at the end of the day to make sure that their products are safe and if they do not, we will take enforcement activity at the product sellers.”  Nord continued, saying that until now, the CPSC “has focused on product manufacturers, and not an awful lot of attention to retailers and making sure that retailers understood their responsibility. But with the big-box retailers coming in, that focus has changed.”

Nord also said that the CPSC would be using some new funds appropriated by Congress to expand inspections of imported products.  The plan involves placing full-time CPSC inspectors at some of the nation’s busiest ports and using a new import-tracking surveillance system in cooperation with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  Nord told the audience that the inspections would target high-risk products such as toys, fireworks and electrical equipment, and suspect shipments.

While consumer advocates would no doubt welcome the CPSC’s new product safety initiatives, it appears retailers are less enthusiastic.  “We agree that retailers have a role to play in all this but it is not the same sort of role as the manufacturer,” Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation, told The Wall Street Journal.  “The primary responsibility has to fall on the manufacturer.”

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