Friday, September 18, 2009

CPSIA - Letter to CPSC re Tracking Labels Guidance 9-18-09

September 18, 2009


Todd Stevenson
Director, Office of the Secretary
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
4330 East West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814

Re: Section 103 Tracking Labels Guidance

Dear Mr. Stevenson:

I am writing on behalf of the Alliance for Children’s Product Safety, an organization comprised of small businesses in many industries impacted by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). I request your prompt consideration of an urgent matter regarding the impact of Section 103 tracking labels guidance issued on July 21 (the “Guidance”) on small businesses in America.

By way of background, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that I have expended considerable effort to help the agency avoid mishap in the implementation of the CPSIA’s troubling tracking labels provision in recent months. I have testified before the CPSC on tracking labels (May 12 hearing, second panel), wrote a comment letter on Section 103, sent a letter to Rep. John Dingell in part addressing tracking labels and posted no less than 38 blog entries related to tracking labels, including a comprehensive list of “unanswered questions” about the Guidance. To date, none of my “unanswered questions” have been addressed by the agency in any form as far as I know.

The Guidance was originally heralded as a document sensitive to the interests of small businesses. Some terms seemed to offer relief to small lot manufacturers who did not already mark products with lot information. This regulatory approach was forecast by Commissioner Moore in his May 13 statement explaining his vote on the NAM tracking labels stay petition, when he noted that tracking labels implementation would be “a learning process for all of us and not an excuse to punish an unwitting mistake.”

Unfortunately, the Guidance also specified that all of the information in Section 103 needed to be “ascertainable” by both the manufacturer and consumers. This has been interpreted to mean that manufacturers must be able to produce “detailed production information, including the means to distinguish products made from different factories, made with different components, at different times” for any product pulled from any store shelf anywhere and at any time. The Commission made it clear that this is a serious legal obligation. As Mr. Moore wrote on July 20, “those who fail to keep the information required by the tracking label provision . . . will not find a very sympathetic ear at the Commission.”

The issue of what “ascertainable” means gets to the heart of the issue that Mr. Moore highlighted. It is also at the heart of the tracking labels dilemma for small businesses. In my “unanswered questions” blogpost on August 14, I posed the following question:

The Guidance states: “The question of what should be ascertainable is a different question than whether that specific information can be marked on the product or packaging.” [Emphasis added.] Thus, it appears that the CPSC will not permit ANY manufacturers to sell ANY children’s product for which the specified Section 103 information is not “ascertainable”. In other words, if a consumer calls up to inquire about the Section 103 information for any unit of a children’s product made on or after August 14, regardless of whether made by a small lot manufacturer, that information must be available – or less. Correct?

Elsewhere in the Guidance, the CPSC advises that small lot manufacturers need not create a lot marking system if one does not currently exist. So, essentially, the rules require that co-hort information be “ascertainable” on items without lot markings. This is, for all practical purposes, impossible. An unmarked item is fungible with all other similar unmarked items. If small businesses are not required to mark by lot, then it will be impossible to distinguish products by lot.

This is a massive problem for small businesses. It is not solvable as far as I can tell. The Guidance says on one hand that we do not need to mark by lot, and on the other hand, says we will be exposed to civil and criminal penalties if we cannot “ascertain” lot information. This is faulty “guidance” at a minimum. It is tantamount to requiring universal marking of products by lot – although the Guidance states the exact opposite.

Please do not overlook the fact that Section 103 applies to every children’s product sold in this country without exception. It is a common misconception in the market that tracking labels are only required for items subject to the new lead limits or the phthalates ban. Thus, the scale of affected industries and product classes is incomprehensibly large.

As I have testified and written extensively on the issues relating to tracking labels for businesses catering to low volume specialty markets, I will not highlight again the many reasons why this rule is impractical in the extreme. Please consider, however, a very practical business problem. Many specialty items are low-priced and have not been designed optimally for tracking labels. The Guidance recognized the seriousness of this issue for the bulk vending industry, but overlooked it for everyone else. Frankly, the practical issues for items that sell for $0.25 are virtually identical for items that sell for $10. In any event, “ascertaining” co-hort information on any children’s product without a lot marking is basically impossible (without changing every lot in some physical way, a manufacturing “solution” likely to quickly degrade into utter chaos or commercial disaster). It is therefore likely that most products sold into specialty markets will violate the Guidance unless they incorporate permanent lot markings.

Members of the Alliance for Children’s Product Safety are facing a profound disaster as a consequence of this rule. Products are already being dropped for an inability to meet the “ascertainable” rule, particularly under threat of penalties under the CPSIA. No one working for a children’s product manufacturer will risk going to jail over co-hort information; they are much more likely to drop products to avoid the issue entirely. The economic damage will be deep and wide – and will contribute nothing to consumer safety. It is ironic that declining product availability as a result of implementation of Section 103 may lead to fewer recalls, thus giving the misimpression that children are safer. In fact, children will simply go to poorly-stocked schools and enjoy a lower standard of living.

I call on the Commission to review and modify the Guidance to provide real and meaningful relief from the requirement on “ascertainability” for small businesses catering to specialty markets. Your prompt attention to this urgent issue will save jobs, products and industries.

Thank you for your prompt consideration of this important matter.


Richard Woldenberg
Alliance for Children’s Product Safety

cc: Chairman Inez Tenenbaum
Commissioner Robert Adler
Commissioner Thomas Moore
Commissioner Nancy Nord
Commissioner Anne Northrup

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