SaferProducts.gov went live on March 11, 2011, on time and on budget according to CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), manufacturers, lawyers, legislators, and consumer organizations have been the primary actors with regard to this database, and there has been a substantial amount of disagreement among them. Ironically, it would seem that the only people who have not taken a strong interest in SaferProducts.gov or the CPSC, for that matter, are the consumers.
The database was mandated by Congress, as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA). Since the outset, many manufacturers and trade organizations have been strongly opposed to it. They envision their competitors filing spurious complaints to gain market share, and plaintiffs’ lawyers salivating at access to (unsubstantiated) product complaints. As recently as a few days before the database went live, the National Association of Manufacturers filed a petition urging the CPSC to continue the “soft launch” phase (i.e., the non-public launch) of SaferProduct.gov until the CPSC can ensure that the reported information is accurate. (Do NAM members really prefer to face product liability claims with a better database in which the CPSC places its imprimatur on the accuracy of the complaints? An interesting question for litigators.)
The SaferProducts.gov database has become a divisive partisan issue, in spite of the fact that the CPSIA was supported almost unanimously by both the Republican and Democratic parties from the outset. The Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade held a hearing on February 17, 2011 on “A Review of CPSIA and CPSC Resources” and on the following day, in an about face, Republicans approved legislation in the House to block the CPSC from spending any funds to operate the database.
Consumer advocates remain strongly supportive of the CPSC database believing it to be an important consumer tool that “will end the secrecy that currently prevents critical product safety information from reaching consumers” according to Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel at the Consumer Federation of America. Are the advocates responding to specific consumer constituent requests for the database or does their position reflect an opinion they consider best for consumers but for which there is no demand?
According to the CPSC’s Scott Wolfson, less than 330,000 consumers are currently signed up to receive “push” e-mails from the CPSC to gain instant access to product recalls issued by the CPSC. It is possible that a fair percentage of that number is comprised by manufacturers, retailers and lawyers who like to stay up to date with the CPSC. Further, according to the CPSC, only 8,000 people follow the CPSC on Twitter. The CPSC has the ability to notify many millions of people about recalls through e-mails and news releases and it has also undertaken major initiatives in the past few years to make good use of the social media to get the safety word out to consumers. Yet, after all this time, not many consumers are actively engaged directly with the CPSC. So why does the CPSC believe that SaferProducts.gov will be a “powerful source of information for consumers” when it appears consumers are not even interested in receiving recall notices directly from the Commission?
SaferProducts.gov will have to compete with more accessible, if not equally effective, online consumer use and safety data. Consumers with product complaints are far more likely to report a complaint directly online at the retailer’s website. Online retailers tend to keep a list of all customer reviews in perpetuity and quantify them for the consumers. Yes, it would appear that most of these sites don’t automatically notify the manufacturers to provide them with an opportunity to rebut the claim as the CPSC database does. Nor do they filter spurious claims or ask for all contact information to ensure there is a person behind the complaint as opposed to the product’s competitor. Check out the number of very serious product complaints concerning rashes at this website: Johnson’s Baby Gel Oil with Aloe & Vitamin E at Amazon. Do consumers order the product after they read the reviews? Most likely some do, some don’t. Is it possible consumers are more inured to product safety claims than the legislature, CPSC, retailers, manufacturers or even consumer advocates realize?
Politics and principles aside, will the availability of the database make a big difference? Will it drive consumers to the CPSC and benefit product safety? Will it subject manufacturers to new litigation or loss of market share? The reality is that is seems hardly worthy of the partisan politics and trade association efforts to discard it. Mostly because it would appear that consumers haven’t asked for it in the first place which means they are not so likely to use it. Time will tell.