Monday, February 28, 2011

CPSIA - Jockeying for Position over the Database

The Washington Post published the latest whitewash on the CPSC public database yesterday entitled "Publicly accessible product safety database hits House roadblock". In this article, the Post allowed consumer group favorite Rachel Weintraub to publish her own spin of matters: "'There's a lot of support for the database, but we don't know how the dynamic is ultimately going to play out,' said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for Consumer Federation of America. 'This is really a last-ditch effort by manufacturers to hold on to this great situation they have right now, where information is not getting out to the public.'" [Emphasis added]

Of course, Rachel was simply borrowing a phrase from last week's New York Times ("Emboldened by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, manufacturers of toys and other children’s products are making a last-ditch effort to quash new safety regulations that they say are unfair or too onerous"). [Emphasis added] When you have a great phrase, why not use it over and over?!

What's the truth? Does it even matter anymore? Jennifer Kerr of the Associated Press questions the purported (asserted) value of the database, noting:

"Anyone can submit a "report of harm" to the database. They aren't required to have first-hand knowledge of the alleged injury or potential defect that could lead to injury. . . . The U.S. government has a similar auto safety database, also available to consumers online, that describes people's safety complaints in extraordinary detail. It is the government's principal early warning system intended to alert federal investigators to signs of looming safety problems. Yet despite efforts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to review consumer complaints before they're memorialized in the government's database, an AP review of 750,000 records last year found that the data included complaints about slick pavement during snow, inconsiderate mechanics, paint chips, sloshing gasoline during fill-ups, potholes, dim headlights, bright headlights, inaccurate dashboard clocks and windshield wipers that streak." [Emphasis added]

This is just what we in the small business community need - a government-sponsored, funded and promoted accumulation of unqualified miscellaneous gripes about our products. Do you think the media will ever take an interest in this stuff? Nah . . . .

And lest we forget, a familiar criticism of the database is that accusations can take a long time to resolve . . . but once posted to the Internet, can never be truly expunged from the permanent record. The year-long DryMax diapers controversy, not to mention the trashing of Toyota braking systems, demonstrate the severe risk U.S. manufacturers and importers face under the database. Imagine the long term damage to those brands if the accusations (subsequently proven false) never died . . . . Notably, Wayne Morris of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers called the new database nothing better than a "blog" because of these design defects.

The Washington Post failed to mention this nuance. Rachel must have forgotten to point it out.

I think it's also worth considering the gap in how the CPSC describes the purpose and function of the database. Thanks be to Congress, is it clear WHY we have this database? Cheryl Falvey, General Counsel of the CPSC, says it's a "complaints" database, NOT a "causation" database. She is pinning her interpretation on the disclaimers all over the website that the information on the site has not been proven and may be wrong. In other words, the postings can't be relied upon. They are only "complaints" under this view. Ms. Falvey used this reasoning to dismiss complaints about process raised by pesky last-ditch manufacturers at last week's ICPHSO.

Of course, if the postings are really just "complaints", why did the CPSC name the site ""? Doesn't sound like a complaint website, does it? A long time ago, I complained about the website name to the person who claims to have coined it. I did not win that one, obviously. The URL includes the media-friendly term "safer" and makes an inescapable connection to Ms. Tenenbaum's famous remark on website trustworthiness: "Well, to all of you here today, I say don't believe everything you read on the Internet, except what you read on Web sites that end in dot gov."

I may not be the only one who thinks this, despite the website's disclaimers.

This impression is reinforced by Chairman Tenenbaum's own description of the ideal workings of the database in her keynote speech at last week's ICPHSO: "I also envision the site empowering consumers to make independent decisions that further their own safety and the safety of their family. If a mom uses the search function on the site, sees a series of reports of harm about a product she bought for her child, and decides to take the product away from her child, while behind the scenes we are working to finalize a recall—that is a good thing in my opinion."

That sounds like a "causation" database, doesn't it? The implication is that the mom can rely on the information (it must be true) and besides, doesn't an injury "incident" mean that a recall is coming soon? My immediate concern is that Ms. Tenenbaum is right - unqualified and unverified complaints on WILL induce consumers to take our products away from children - whether or not a recall is forthcoming. We also know that Ms. Falvey is right - no one knows if the complaints are true - but who will reimburse our losses when the government convinces our customers that the safest course of action is to stop using our product pending a decision that may never be forthcoming . . . because nothing's wrong.

The Chairman is encouraging consumers to rely on this information - to draw conclusions on the likelihood of future injury. This is even more alarming, given that Ms. Tenenbaum said in Congressional testimony last week that the agency will likely post unverified or inaccurate information to the database. She knows that this information will be faulty. As she said in testimony, "that's what the rub is".

That's the rub, indeed.

I am tired of the rub, indeed.


Paul said...

"... Well, to all of you here today, I say don't believe everything you read on the Internet, except what you read on Web sites that end in dot gov... ”

Thank you for reminding us the Chairwoman’s wisdom. I guess Ms. Tenenbaum would understand that nowadays we need a good laugh more than ever.

Happymom4 aka Hope Anne said...

Rick, thought you might appreciate the IRONY of this article . . . more "un-intended consequences" by the do-gooders and all that . . .

Wacky Hermit said...

I just love how they think moms are going to spend time searching for every product they own on a government database. I'm a mom. I have four kids. I buy children's products. And I can tell you, the ONLY time I looked up safety info for a children's product was when buying my very first carseat for my oldest child to come home in. That was before she was born. Funny, though, how I managed to do that just fine without a government database.

After the birth of her first child, a mom is lucky to have time to take a shower. Most stay-at-home moms, who aren't rich enough to pay people to do things for them, are too busy wiping bums, noses, and floors to worry about the latest safety fads. And the working moms have even less time. Occasionally you'll find a mom who worries about safety as a leisure-time activity. The other place you find "safety moms" are in wealthy neighborhoods, where having children is a competition sport. The rest of us are more concerned with making sure our kids don't eat their own poo to worry about whether our baby monitor might have been recalled. So it's very clear to me that people like Rachel Weintraub are completely unlike the vast majority of moms, who are lucky to find the time to quit scrubbing long enough to visit Facebook, and scrape by with used cribs.

Speaking of cribs, I didn't need help with cribs from the government either. For my oldest, I used a hand-me-down crib from my aunt, that had slats "too far" apart. For my second child I had the dough to spring for a thrift store crib, which was missing some parts. Oddly enough, I was able to go to this fabulous place called a "hardware store" and find new screws to assemble it properly. Against the government's current advice, I successfully disassembled and reassembled it several times, each time replacing screws that got lost, until I ended up having a very mechanical child who figured out how to disassemble it all by himself. And even after that I fixed the crib myself with a drill bit, a metal rod, and a die set, and used it for baby #4. A lot of other parents are in the situation I was in-- I couldn't afford a brand spanking new crib for each baby. Funny though, I didn't need the government to help me, and my kids are all fine, even the one who removed two slats from the crib and escaped.

I demand a cage match with Rachel Weintraub. I can take her-- I've got a serious weight advantage on her. ;)