Feds to launch product safety website despite opposition

Opponents want to cut funding for database containing consumer complaints about unsafe merchandise.

On March 11, the Consumer Products Safety Commission plans to unveil a searchable website designed to warn the public about dangerous products despite an effort now under way in Congress to defund it, the agency said Friday.

The database, which was mandated by the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, is to serve as a clearinghouse for information from consumers about safety problems they've experienced with products ranging from baby cribs to lawn mowers.

But at the urging of manufacturers associations and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., the House passed an amendment Feb. 18 to block CPSC from spending any money to operate the database.

Consumer advocates are urging the Senate to reject the House provision, which is part of a budget bill for funding the federal government for the rest of 2011.

Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, are mounting an effort to save the database.

Inouye called the House vote to kill it a "purely political" move intended to "score points or placate supporters." He said Friday that the House amendment will not be included in the Senate's version of the federal funding bill.

Rockefeller called the Pompeo amendment a "bad idea" and a "bum deal for American consumers. "I cannot support efforts to defund a consumer safety priority." He said the product safety database would "serve as an early warning system for unsafe products and has the potential to save lives."

Inouye called the database "critically important" and "of immense value to consumers."

During debate in the House in February, Pompeo warned that the database could be used to post inaccurate information about products that could harm sales. He said the National Association of Manufacturers, the Home Appliance Manufacturers, the American Home Furnishings Alliance, and the Consumer Specialty Products Association all support his amendment to kill the database.

The database would be burdensome to manufacturers and would drive jobs overseas, Pompeo said.

In 2008, legislation to establish the database encountered little resistance in Congress -- it passed the House with one dissenting vote and the Senate with only six, said Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

At the time, "the notion of allowing the public access to information that could drive their purchases was a popular one," she said. The 2008 vote followed a rash of product safety revelations, including toys with lead paint and other toxic ingredients, and deadly baby cribs.

But support for the law eroded after the midterm elections last year. A coalition of seven consumer organizations led by the Consumer Federation of America, said the Pompeo amendment "is better described as the 'Keep American Families in the Dark' provision.

"For years," they said, "consumers have been left in the dark because CPSC's hands have been tied by section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act," which limits CPSC's ability to disclose complaints about specific manufacturers and labelers.

"Unsafe toys and other consumer products were injuring, sometimes killing, adults, children and infants, but the news about these harmful products was held back for weeks, months, even years," consumer groups said in a letter urging senators to oppose the Pompeo amendment.

Hitchcock said CPSC has spent about $3 million to establish the product safety database, but it will need money annually to maintain it, review consumer complaints, get comments from manufacturers and arbitrate disputes.

Earlier, the National Association of Manufacturers said the database "has alarmed manufacturers, who fear that it will be a poorly monitored [website] that encourages reputation-harming complaints."

The association warned that a "database full of misinformation" will not be helpful to consumers.

But CPSC said it has a "review and comment process" that will let manufacturers respond to complaints before they are available to the public in the database.