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Product-safety complaints site is coming, but first: Who gets to complain?

Manufacturers want to prevent the federal database from being a repository for virtually any gripe. Consumer advocates, meanwhile, want it to be as complete as possible.

November 16, 2010|David Lazarus

Congress mandated in 2008 that federal safety regulators create an easily accessible, fully searchable database of consumer complaints about a wide variety of products. That was the easy part.

The tricky part begins Wednesday as the Consumer Product Safety Commission votes on how exactly this database will work — and how comprehensive its listings will be.

The manufacturing industry has been lobbying aggressively to prevent the database from being a repository for virtually any gripe involving product safety. The industry's fear is that nearly all goods can appear shoddy when exposed to the full brunt of consumer kvetching.

Consumer advocates, meanwhile, have been pushing to make the database as complete as possible so that people will be able to make informed decisions about the products they purchase, as well as have a resource for sharing problems with others.

"Right now, people can't easily find out about products that they may buy or that they use every day with their family," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America. "This database will provide consumers with credible, accurate information."

As with all regulatory matters, the devil's in the details. Section 212 of the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires regulators to establish and maintain a database of safety incidents that's accessible online and easily searchable.

Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the safety commission, said the current plan calls for creation of the database at an agency website, SaferProducts.gov. After the consumer files a report with the site, officials would have five days to review the claim and pass it along to the related manufacturer.

The manufacturer would have 10 days to challenge the report or file a response. The report would then be posted online for all to see.

"Wednesday's vote is about finalizing the rules regarding who can submit a 'report of harm' and how the commission will interact with consumers and manufacturers during the period of time before the report is posted on the database," Wolfson said.

Regulators would have the power to remove items from the database if a subsequent investigation shows that the information was inaccurate.

"This is all about transparency," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with Consumers Union. "Commission staffers have worked very hard to ensure that the database is fair to everyone."

She noted that a similar database has been operated for years by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has provided invaluable information about potential defects in vehicles to the agency as well as to independent watchdogs, the press and members of the public.

After a Lexus sped out of control on a San Diego County highway last year, killing four people, The Times mined this database and found a sharp increase in sudden-acceleration complaints in Toyota vehicles after the company adopted electronic throttle systems.

Those stories ran before Toyota acknowledged the full extent of its sudden acceleration problem, showing the value in simply making information available to the public.

Even so, dozens of companies and industry groups have objected to various aspects of regulators' proposed plan for getting the product-safety database up and running.

Galaxy Fireworks, a Florida-based maker of things that blow up, called on regulators to exclude reports about a risk of harm and to instead "stick to verifiable injury incidents."

"This database must be based on concrete instances and not on issues or injuries that may (or may not) occur," the company said in a public filing.

Similarly, the Power Tool Institute, representing makers of circular saws, nail guns and other such devices, objected to reports being filed by "observers of the consumer product being used," as opposed to solely by users of a product.

Gadhia at Consumers Union countered that knowing about a near miss can be just as important as knowing about an actual injury. "If someone narrowly avoids getting hurt, that's a good piece of information for consumers to have," she said.

Moreover, there are occasions when an onlooker is the only one in a position to file a report. "What if the person injured is elderly or a minor?" Gadhia asked. "You'd want a caregiver to make a report."

The Consumer Specialty Products Assn., representing makers of household goods like kitchen cleansers and air fresheners, believes reports shouldn't be filed by just anyone with a beef.

"Allowing the database to become a 'blog' of sorts for commentary about a product's quality or utility diminishes the real intent of the database, namely to inform consumers with reports of harm that are truthful, correct and properly verified," the group said.

The Toy Industry Assn. is against a provision that would allow reports to be filed by "attorneys, professional engineers, investigators, non-governmental organizations, consumer advocates and consumer advocacy organizations and trade organizations."

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