Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CPSIA - Tracking Labels Answer Received Today

The CPSC answered my letter of September 18 regarding tracking labels today. In a nutshell, my question was about how small businesses are supposed to ascertain "cohort information" from fungible products if we are permitted to not use lot markings. The answer to that question was not clear (to me) from the Tracking Labels Guidance.

In today's response, the CPSC seems to indicate more flexibility than I had read into the Guidance. Tony Cook of the Office of General Counsel states: "Your letter suggests that the manufacturer lacks flexibility regarding information that must be 'ascertainable'. As with the 'marking' requirement, the manufacturer's reasonable judgment and consideration of the manufacturer's particular circumstances, are guiding issues." He carries on helpfully: "Without such an approach, an absolute requirement to have ascertainable all required information would in effect swallow the Commission's considered course with respect to marking." This is the conflict that motivated my concern.

On the other hand, Mr. Cook states ". . . what can be marked and what can be ascertainable are separate questions". This is the rub, of course. This means that even if you can't mark the item, you might still have to be able to ascertain the cohort information. How do you do that? Well, you can't.

It all boils down to what is considered "reasonable judgment". In fact, I have never found this a challenging standard to meet in our business but that was before there were huge penalties and possibly jail time to consider.

In an environment where the regulators want us to exercise sound judgment, there needs to be some recognition that the incentive to take the risk of exercising judgment only makes sense when that judgment is PROTECTED. No one wants to risk huge fines for doing their job (or let their teammates incur this risk). Thus, I think the CPSC needs to look at the question about ascertainability again. The CPSC needs to say flat out that it will respect the judgment of manufacturers on how they determine which information, if any, can be ascertainable, as long as the decision on marking was deliberate, consistent and made on a good faith basis.

In the case of our business, tracking labels serve no particular purpose except to slow us down and waste our money. We have recalled 130 pieces since 1984 (out of an estimated one billion shipped, all units believed recovered) so the risk to consumers, at least thus far, seems controlled. I would like the authority to decide how much to spend on tracking labels and information retention/accessibility, based on my knowledge of our products, our market, our track record and our legal obligations. Then, if we exercise good faith and are reasonable and consistent in our approach to markings and cohort information, the CPSC should respect our decisions. thus, a failure to mark or ascertain would not be held against us unless our balancing of the equities is demonstrated to be unreasonable.

None of this would be necessary except for the ridiculous penalties and fines possible under the CPSIA. The indiscriminate manner of penalizing under the law makes minor issues (even inconsequential errors) into potentially serious problems. In addition, given that the CPSC recent practice of doling out penalties for long ago settled disputes, the long tail of 20-20 hindsight makes this dilemma particularly uncomfortable.

I appreciate the CPSC's effort in replying to me, and look forward to working with them to bring more clarity to this very important point.

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