Sunday, August 30, 2009

CPSIA - A Rich Irony, Courtesy of the CPSC

As you probably know by now, Mattel won approval from the CPSC for its seven proprietary overseas labs to conduct official and certified safety tests under the CPSIA. The AP recently reported on this decision, and noted that the approval was seemingly secret, as it was absent from the CPSC website and was not announced by press release. For the first time in recent times, I found myself agreeing with a consumer advocate on a safety issue (Mike Green was quoted in the article noting the irony of this approval). The AP article generated a firestorm of commentary, such as the angry post of Holly Jahangiri on

Mattel, of course, lobbied to include this cost-saving provision in the new law. I have known of its existence for quite some time, and yes, it always stunk. Mattel is largely individually responsible for the maelstrom that spawned the CPSIA. How lovely that Congress saw the "logic" of making things a bit easier for them. To heck with Small Business, I guess. [Rep. Jason Altmire, are you listening? Probably not . . . .] The facts of this situation speak for themselves.

There are other ironies. First of all, Chairman Tenenbaum promised us that her "regulatory philosophy embraces open dialogue, information sharing with all stakeholders, and a commitment to finding mutual interests." Brave New World, huh? Well, just a quick clarification here: is a secret decision, not announced to the press or published online, the kind of "information sharing" and "openness" we can expect from a Tenenbaum-led CPSC? I would hope we could do better than this.

Second, and a richer irony, is that Mattel is not new to testing. Are any of you of the opinion that Mattel starting testing its products AFTER the famous recalls? Well, I have no direct knowledge of the situation, but my money says they were big testers before the recalls. Furthermore, I would presume that they have bulging file drawers FULL of test reports on the items that were recalled. So what happened? I believe Mattel tested the heck out of their products - but they apparently failed to properly supervise or control their supply chain, and their products were later recalled for undetected defects. Congress in its infinite wisdom decided the solution to this dilemma was to make everyone test before importing (something that I believe Mattel did) as a way to "assure" that the toy recalls would never recur. Yet, the Mattel facts suggest that this is nothing more than a fantasy. Or an election cycle publicity stunt. AND which operating company is the ONLY one approved to run its own labs so far? We can't know for sure since the CPSC seems to deem that information confidential, but I believe the answer is ONE - namely, Mattel, the company with the problems in its supply chain management processes.

Things are off to a rousing start at the CPSC.

Of course, I am not particularly jealous of Mattel for their labs. I cannot afford to set up a firewalled lab or seven of them, and I doubt we could ever generate enough testing volume to make it pay (try as Congress might to put us out of business from testing expenses). If they do a good job, I really have no objection to their performing their own tests. As experience instructs, however, the devil's in the details. Frankly, the tests aren't the issue for safety, anyhow - as Mattel's experience demonstrates. I wonder how the CPSC will deal with recalls of Mattel items tested in Mattel's own labs. Hmmm.

It's no irony that Mattel is leading the way and using its prodigious wealth to feather its nest, perhaps at the expense of everyone else (as a practical matter). It is a tragedy that Congress is so shamelessly indifferent to the woes of smaller companies suffering a terrible economic burden because of its nifty new safety law. As long as the Chicago Tribune keeps giving them headlines to stay employed, our self-concerned political leaders will be content to let us flap in the wind. But they are not quite as cold-hearted as that. At least we know that they are concerned about somebody besides themselves - like Mattel.

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