Responding to the outcry over dangerous imports from China and elsewhere, the head of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission is preparing regulatory proposals that could mandate broader inspections of imports and stiffer penalties.
Consumer safety advocates welcomed the proposals on Thursday as a departure for the agency, which has been criticized repeatedly by the Bush administration for being reluctant or slow to approve new product safety mandates.
Agency officials said the initiatives were inspired by the surge in problematic imports from China and reports of dangers associated with other products, including all-terrain vehicles, as well as efforts by Democrats in Congress to take up their own regulatory changes. The new rules are far from imminent, however. They would require approval by Congress and enforcement by the commission, which since January has been unable to take votes because of a lack of a quorum. Also, industry officials have already expressed opposition to some of the ideas. Nancy Nord, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush as the commission’s acting chairwoman, is drafting the proposed changes.
Her staff has recently provided briefings to major US importers and manufacturers as well as consumer advocates. White House officials have also been briefed, members of her staff said. It is unclear whether the White House, which has generally favoured loosening regulations on businesses, will formally endorse the plan.
Under Nord’s plan, importers and manufacturers would have to certify that products comply with regulatory standards, which might mean more inspections before goods are sent to the US or placed on store shelves. Such an inspection might have detected the lead paint in Thomas & Friends wooden toy trains made in China, which were recently recalled.
The commission might also decide to enforce certain voluntary industry standards for items, including cigarette lighters and all-terrain vehicles, both of which have been connected to consumer injuries and deaths. That would give the agency the power to seize products or block their entry to the country. Now, the agency must sometimes wait until products are on the market and then push for a recall.
Discount retailers and Internet-based firms, among others, would also be explicitly prohibited from selling products that have been the subject of a recall. Nord is also considering supporting an increase in the maximum fine that the commission can impose to as much as $10 million from about $2 million, according to the commission’s chief of staff, Quin Dodd. A separate proposal already before the Congress would allow fines of up to $20 million. The list of specific changes Nord will propose is still incomplete and subject to revision, Dodd said.
Thomas Moore, a Democrat who is the only other current member of the commission, is preparing his own list of proposed regulatory changes, the details of which have not been disclosed. Charles Samuels, a lawyer in Washington who represents the major US appliance manufactures, said that although he supported the effort, he was concerned that some of the measures might disrupt trade. “There is some public crisis of confidence with some of the products coming into the US,” Samuels said. “But if all of a sudden you are into some kind of a Russian-styled bureaucracy involving product certification, that is not going to help at all.”
Frederick Locker, a New York lawyer representing the largest importers and manufacturers of toys and nursery products, said a top fine of $10 million was excessive. “Most of American businesses are small businesses—and small businesses cannot handle a fine of that magnitude,” he added.