Wednesday, December 1, 2010

CPSIA - My Written Testimony at Senate Hearing 12-2-10

As you may know, there will be a Senate CPSC oversight hearing tomorrow. The hearing will be held by the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. You can see the witness list here. The subject of the hearing is "Oversight of the Consumer Product Safety Commission: Product Safety in the Holiday Season"

I have submitted the following written testimony. I will not be testifying at this hearing.

Chairman, Learning Resources, Inc.
Vernon Hills, Illinois
December 2, 2010

As an operator of a small business making educational products and educational toys, I have had a front row seat for the implementation of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). On the occasion of your CPSC oversight hearing, I want to highlight the economic damage wrought by the CPSIA without achieving any material improvement in safety statistics. I also want to bring to your attention the open hostility of the CPSC toward the corporate community in the implementation and enforcement of the CPSIA, and conclude with my recommendations for legal reforms to restore common sense to safety administration without reducing children’s safety.

Children are our business. As educators, as parents and as members of our community, we have always placed the highest priority on safety. We would not be in the business of helping children learn if we didn’t care deeply about children and their safety. The CPSIA has dramatically impacted our business model, reduced our ability to make a profit and create jobs, pared our incentive to invest in new products and new markets, and generally made it difficult to grow our business. We would gladly accept these burdens if the law made our products safer, but the fact is that it hasn't. Our company, Learning Resources, Inc., has recalled a grand total of 130 pieces since our founding in June 1984 (all recovered from the market). Our management of safety risks was highly effective long before the government intervened in our safety processes in 2008.

The precautionary approach of the CPSIA attempted to fill perceived “gaps” in regulation by making it illegal to sell children’s products unless proven safe prior to sale. Yet the law has yielded few quantifiable safety benefits other than a reduction in recent recall rates for lead-in-paint (already illegal in children’s products for decades). Ironically, this progress in reducing recalls has taken place in a 27-month period in which, like the time before the CPSIA, testing of children’s products prior to sale was not mandatory. Consumer confidence wasn’t dented by the lack of mandatory testing. The justifications for the over-arching and excessively expensive CPSIA regulatory scheme just don’t hold water.

In any event, the reduction in recall rates is only a minor triumph and was not due to mandatory testing or harsh new lead standards, but most likely a (hyper) energized regulator and a great deal of publicity. Recall statistics can be highly misleading because the rate and number of recalls depend on many factors and do not generally correlate to injuries to children. In other words, product recalls are not tantamount to childhood injuries. The purpose of the CPSIA is to reduce injuries, not product recalls – yet CPSC recall statistics show that there have been almost no reported injuries from lead or phthalates in children’s products in the last decade (one death and three unverified injuries from 1999-2010, all from lead or lead-in-paint). The billions of dollars now being spent by the corporate community annually on testing and other compliance activities have not reduced injuries – there weren’t any to reduce. Whatever peace of mind has been generated by lower recall rates comes at a very high price.

The CPSIA significantly broadened the reach of federal safety regulation well beyond what was needed to deal with the lead-in-paint toy violations of 2007 and 2008. Under the CPSIA, the definition of a “Children’s Product” subject to regulation now encompasses ALL products designed or intended primarily for a child 12 years of age or younger (15 U.S.C. §2052(a)(2)). This definition ensures that virtually anything marketed to children will be subject to the restrictions of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA), irrespective of known or quantifiable risk of injury. Put another way, this definition ensures that many product categories with a long tradition of safety are now subject to the withering requirements of this law for the first time simply because they fall within the overly broad definition of a Children’s Product. The affected safe products span the U.S. economy books, t-shirts and shoes, ATVs, bicycles, donated or resale goods, musical instruments, pens and educational products. The CPSC declined to use its discretion to narrow this definition in its recent “final rule” interpreting “Children’s Product”, thus ensuring continued market chaos and economic waste.

The consequences of the change in the consumer safety laws to a precautionary posture has had notable negative impacts and promises to create further problems, namely:

a. Increased Costs. The new law creates a heavy burden for testing costs. From 2006 to 2009, our company’s testing costs alone jumped more than eight-fold. We estimate that our testing costs will triple again after the CPSC (as anticipated) lifts its testing stay in 2011, and could multiply again if the CPSC enacts (as anticipated) its draft “15 Month Rule” on testing frequency and “reasonable testing programs”. Testing costs are often thousands of dollars per product. Having employed one person to manage safety testing and quality control for many years, we now have a department of five, including me, plus an outside lawyer on retainer. These jobs are funded by discontinuing sales, marketing and product development jobs – the CPSIA is NOT an ersatz stimulus program. Personnel, legal and other out-of-pocket safety expenses (besides testing) have more than quadrupled in the last three years – all without any change in our super-low recall rates or injury statistics.

b. Increased Administrative Expenses. The CPSIA requires that all products include tracking labels on both the packaging and the product itself. Rationalized as “analogous” to date labels on cartons of milk, tracking labels are in reality nothing but pure economic waste as applied to the vast array of “Children’s Products” under the CPSIA. As noted, our company has a virtually unblemished 26-year track record of safety so tracking labels promise to add little value in the event of recalls that are unlikely to occur. Ironically, with the strict new rules governing product safety, we believe the already low chance of a product recall has been reduced further. As noted above, the money to pay for all this administrative busy work comes from foregone business opportunities. We are being forced to shrink our company to apply tracking labels that no one will use.

An equally frustrating bureaucracy has sprung up around recordkeeping under this law. Burdensome requirements spawned by the government’s new involvement in our quality control processes forced us to make large new investments in information technology with no return on our investment. In addition, the pending CPSC draft policy on component testing promises to convert the simple task of obtaining a complete suite of safety test reports into a major recordkeeping chore. We will now be forced to manage each component separately, tracking test reports on each component one-by-one. This promises to multiply our recordkeeping responsibilities – and the related risk of liability for failing to comply – by more than an order of magnitude.

c. Reduced Incentive to Innovate. The increased cost to bring a product to market under the CPSIA will make many viable – and valuable – products uneconomic. To cover the cost of developing, testing and safety-managing new products, the prospective sales of any new item (“hurdle rate”) is now much higher than under prior law. This means that low volume “specialty market” items are less likely to come to market and many new small business entrants may find themselves priced out of the market. The CPSIA makes it much harder to start a new business serving the children’s market because the rules so heavily favor big business. Because of CPSIA transactional costs, high volume items now have a huge cost advantage over low volume items. This will hurt many small but important markets like educational products for disabled children. Our company, with its 1500 catalog items, is probably now a dinosaur under the CPSIA –the law provides a strong economic incentive to restructure our business around 50-150 items and to focus on high volume markets only. Schools would suffer from the loss of niche educational products.

d. Crippled by Regulatory Complexity. Our problems don’t end with testing costs or increased staffing. We are being crippled by regulatory complexity. Almost 28 months after passage of the CPSIA, we still don’t have a comprehensive set of regulations. Please consider how mindboggling the rules have become. There were fewer than 200 pages of safety law and CPSC rules that pertained to our business until 2008. These rules clearly defined our responsibilities and could be taught to our staff (in fact, many were rarely applicable to us). Today, the applicable laws, rules and interpretative documents exceed 3,000 pages. As a practical matter, it is simply not possible to master all of these documents – and yet it’s potentially a felony to break any of these rules. Sadly for us, the rules and CPSC staff commentary keep changing, are still being written and are rarely if ever conformed. How can we master and re-master these rules and teach them to our staff while still doing the full-time job of running our business? Ironically, the recalls of 2007 and 2008 were never a “rules” problem – those famous recalls were clearly a compliance problem. Imagine what will happen now with an unmanageable fifteen-fold increase in rules. No small business “ombudsman” can make that problem go away.

e. Small Business Will Certainly Suffer. The CPSIA was written in response to failings of big companies, but hammers small and medium-sized companies with particular vengeance. Our small business has already lost customers for our entire category on the grounds that selling toys is too confusing or too much of a “hassle”. This is our new reality. The highly-technical rules and requirements are beyond the capability of all but the most highly-trained quality managers or lawyers to comprehend. Small businesses simply don’t have the skills, resources or business scale to manage compliance with the CPSIA. For this reason, small businesses bear the greatest risk of liability under the law, despite being responsible for almost no injuries from lead in the last decade. The double whammy of massive new regulatory obligations and the prospect of devastating liability are driving small businesses out of our market.

In implementing and administering the CPSIA, the CPSC created a harsh regulatory environment for the business community over the past 28 months. Consider the following:

1. Unjustified Recalls. In June, in response to an inquiry by a Congressman and followed up by media inquiries, the CPSC pressed McDonalds to recall 12 million Shrek glasses for “high” cadmium content, despite the agency’s admission on Twitter that the glasses were not toxic. The recall effort was justified as being done “out of an abundance of caution”, a frightening regulatory standard when applied to products acknowledged to be safe by the regulator itself. McDonalds lost millions of dollars as a result, not to mention suffering from widespread and persistent bad publicity.

2. Unjustified Penalties and Coercive Tactics. The CPSC assessed a $2.05 million penalty against a hapless Japanese dollar store chain (Daiso) for five separate tiny recalls involving 698 units and 19 items. These items sold for between $1 and $4 each. There were no reported injuries from sales of the Daiso trinkets. Ms. Tenenbaum bragged about this extraordinarily excessive prosecution in a speech in March 2010 to the Consumer Federation of America: “We secured an injunction that completely stops Daiso from importing children’s products into the country. . . . Daiso has a very high hurdle to jump over to ever get back in the import business again.” Regulated companies take stunning examples like Daiso as a warning that outsized and disproportionate force may be used by this agency with little provocation.

The regulated community has also expressed alarm over the threatened use by the agency of unilateral press releases “to warn the public” about alleged dangers in specific products as a way to coerce “voluntary” recalls. Such threats have been used where facts may be in dispute to justify a recall. Under the law, the CPSC may only implement mandatory recalls subject to a court order, a slow process perhaps but also expensive and labor-intensive. “Voluntary” recalls can be much quicker and cheaper, only requiring “agreement” between the agency and the subject company. In more than one case, CPSC has threatened unilateral releases to try to "convince" a firm to undertake a "voluntary" recall but after the firm took the risk of standing up to the staff and the staff conducted further investigation, the CPSC decided that recalls were not even necessary. Not all firms can bear the expense of such a process or take the risk of calling the staff's bluff because issuance of a release would likely damage the firm and their brand, possibly irrevocably. Many supposedly "voluntary" recalls have resulted. Abusive tactics of this nature have severely damaged trust between the CPSC and the regulated community.

3. Disregard of Public Comments. The agency has garnered considerable criticism for overlooking or disregarding comments from the corporate community solicited in its public rulemaking processes. Ignoring or disregarding inconvenient public comments contrary to the agenda of the controlling party makes a mockery of the legally-mandated public comment process. Notable instances include the recent approval of interpretative rule on “Children’s Products” and the rules implementing the public database of safety incidents. The database debate was so fouled by the majority’s refusal to entertain the legitimate concerns of industry that the two minority Commissioners proposed their own draft rule – which the CPSC at first refused to post on its website.

4. Unjustified Hostile Rulemakings. The CPSC has implemented rules governing the public database that adversely affect the Constitutionally-guaranteed due process rights of our businesses. There is no adequate public policy justification for the erosion of the remarkable civil rights that distinguish the American legal system among all international legal systems – yet the Commission voted 3-2 to allow falsehoods to be posted without recourse in a database the CPSC will maintain. In other cases, the agency has published draft rules (yet to be acted on) which could force companies like ours to spend as much as $10,000 per item per year to meet ARBITRARY rules on testing frequency or “reasonable testing programs” – notwithstanding strong evidence that these rules are wasteful, unnecessary and financially irresponsible. The pendency of rules like this creates destabilizing market uncertainty and forces business decisions that have no basis other than fear of future regulation. For instance, Wal-Mart has already instituted a 100 ppm lead standard months ahead of the POSSIBLE implementation of the standard by the CPSC – simply because the CPSC has been so slow to act.

The CPSIA went off track by taking away the CPSC’s authority to assess risk. If the CPSC were again required to regulate based on risk, safety rules could focus on those few risks with the real potential to cause harm to children. All risks were not created equal.

I recommend several steps to reduce cost, liability risk and complexity all without sacrificing children’s product safety:

A. Mandate that the CPSC base its safety decisions, resource allocation and rules on risk assessment. Restore to the Commission the discretion to set age and product definition criteria for the 300 ppm lead standard and phthalate ban. Freeze the lead standard and lead-in-paint standard at their current levels unless the CPSC determines that a change is necessary to preserve public health and safety.

B. The definition of “Children’s Product” should not include anything primarily sold into or intended for use in schools or which is used primarily under the supervision of adults. Other explicit exceptions should include apparel, shoes, pens, ATVs, bicycles, rhinestones, books and other print materials, brass and connectors. Exclusions from the definition should take these products entirely outside the coverage of the CPSIA (including mandatory tracking labels).

C. Lead-in-substrate and phthalate testing should be based on a “reasonable testing program”, not mandated outside testing. The tenets of a reasonable testing program should be set by the reasonable business judgment of the manufacturer. Resellers should be entitled by rule to rely on the representations of manufacturers. Phthalate testing requirements should explicitly exempt inaccessible components, metals, minerals, hard plastics, natural fibers and wood.

D. Definition of “Children’s Product” should be limited to children six years old or younger and should eliminate the difficult-to-apply “common recognition” factor of Section 3(a)(2)(c) of the CPSA. Definition of “Toy” (for phthalates purposes) should be limited to children three years old or younger and should explicitly refer only to products in the form used in play.

E. Eliminate CPSC certification of laboratories (rely on the market to provide good resources). Fraud has only very rarely been a problem with test labs and is already illegal.

F. Impose procedural limits to insure fairness in penalty assessment by the CPSC under the CPSIA. Completely reformulate penalties to restrict them to egregious conduct (including patterns of violations), reckless endangerment or conduct resulting in serious injury.

G. Rewrite the penalty provision applicable to resale of used product so that violations are only subject to penalty if intentional (actual knowledge or reckless endangerment) and only if the violation led to an actual injury. Eliminate the “knowing” standard with its imputed knowledge of a reasonable man exercising due care.

H. Mandatory tracking labels should be explicitly limited to cribs, bassinets, play pens, all long-life “heirloom” products with a known history of injuring the most vulnerable children (babies or toddlers).

I. Public injury/incident database should be restricted to recalls or properly investigated incidents only. Manufacturers must be given full access to all posted incident data, including contact information. The “due process” civil liberty interests of the corporate community MUST BE PROTECTED.

I urge your committee to address the fundamental flaws in the CPSIA to restore order to the children’s product market and to protect small businesses from further damage. I appreciate the opportunity to share my views on this important topic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Rick - I hope that your intelligence is recognized. Your efforts are greatly appreciated by this reader.