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Product-safety database a hard-fought victory for consumers

Despite efforts by manufacturers and Republican lawmakers to derail it, the federal database of product-safety complaints is up and running.

March 18, 2011|David Lazarus

It's like a regulatory version of "Survivor."

A federal database of product-safety complaints is now operational after withstanding repeated attempts by manufacturers and Republican lawmakers to cripple or kill the resource.

Although the database is finally active, we won't see its full potential for another week or so, until complaints submitted by consumers go through the vetting process and are posted at SaferProducts.gov.

The database, maintained by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, represents a much-needed tool for consumers to search official records for reports of malfunctions or injuries involving a wide variety of products, from baby strollers to power tools.

Until now, there was no way such a search could be done. The only notification of a potentially harmful product would be when federal authorities announced a recall — a move that could come months or even years after an injury report.

The database also represents a streamlined way for consumers to share information not just with one another but also with federal safety regulators. Complaints will now be reviewed in a more timely manner, which could go a long way toward preventing additional harm related to a faulty product.

"Consumers have been operating in the dark," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America. "There's been a huge lack of transparency when it comes to unsafe products."

The database has been in the works since 2008, when Congress mandated that safety regulators create and maintain such a resource for consumers.

After a consumer files a report of a faulty or harmful product, officials have five days to review the complaint and pass it along to the related manufacturer. The manufacturer in turn has 10 days to challenge the report or file a response.

But manufacturers, fearful that the database would turn into a federal blog of product reviews and consumer gripes, filed numerous protests with regulators over what they saw as a misguided assault on the integrity of their goods.

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

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 those who actually use the tools.

They and other manufacturers are concerned that the database will become a feeding ground for personal-injury lawyers, consumer advocates and others not directly involved with a product.

Safety regulators say there are sufficient safeguards in place to maintain the integrity of posted complaints, as well as to provide manufacturers with ample opportunity to challenge a filing before it goes online.

In any case, business interests kept up the pressure until the last minute. Last week, the National Assn. of Manufacturers called on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to "reconsider" how the database would work and to delay its full operation for at least three more months.

"While the NAM supports a product-incident database serving consumers' need for accurate product information, we do not believe a poorly functioning database serves the public interest," said Rosario Palmieri, vice president of regulatory policy for the organization.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in Congress attempted to derail the database by shutting down the $3-million program before it even got going.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) added a provision to the spending bill approved by the Republican majority in the House that would have denied funding for the database. He said he was concerned about the accuracy of complaints filed and whether misleading information would do more harm than good.

Perhaps it's only a coincidence that Kansas' Koch Industries and affiliated individuals were Pompeo's largest campaign donors, contributing $79,500 to his race last November, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And perhaps it's only a coincidence that privately held Koch Industries — run by billionaires Charles and David Koch, who are active in conservative causes — reported spending more than $200,000 lobbying against creation of the database in 2008.

In any case, the Republican spending bill was rejected last week by the Democratic-controlled Senate, leaving funds for the database intact.

Weintraub at the Consumer Federation of America said she's not surprised by the intensity of opposition to the product-safety database.

"The lack of transparency has served manufacturers well," she said. "They're very concerned about what it could lead to if consumers can post information about unsafe products."

What it could lead to is safer products, along with a more efficient marketplace where consumers have the information they need to make good decisions.

Federal safety regulators say they're confident the database will be a boon to both consumers and manufacturers. They say the system has been designed to prevent the database from being an echo chamber for disgruntled shoppers.

Manufacturers shouldn't fear sunlight. They should welcome it. That is, if they have nothing to hide.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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