Shihan vs Goliath, Addendum

It is nice to know that folks out there read what I write.  When I started this blog I really wanted to have a conversation with people who are impacted by the actions of the CPSC, both positively and otherwise.  In response to my last blog post, I got a response from Shihan Qu, among others, and I thought I would share his comments.

Shihan takes issue with my notion that the magnets rule applies only to magnet sets that are intended to be used as adult desk toys and manipulatives.  He reminds me that the final rule blew a hole through this interpretation when the Commission added the phrase “commonly used” to the definition of magnet set.  The definition states “magnets sets are aggregations of separable magnetic objects that are marketed or commonly used as a manipulative or construction item.”  By expanding the definition this way, all powerful small magnet spheres may well end up within this definition since it is the end user, not the manufacturer, who determines whether the product is regulated or not.  One problem is that US based industrial magnet companies who never considered themselves within the definition may well be in for a nasty surprise if their products fall into the hands of the wrong user.

In response to my observation that magnets are easily available for sale online, Shihan responds, “Indeed you can still purchase magnet spheres easily by searching “neocube” or “buckyball” online. The rest of the companies are based in China, and are not easily targeted by the CPSC like we are. As long as there is demand, there will continue to be suppliers who will provide them. What can the CPSC do about them, if anything?”

Finally, I again emphasize that, in its latest action, the CPSC has targeted Mr. Qu personally, as it did when it went after Craig Zucker, in his individual capacity, in the Buckyballs matter.  It seems that the agency is really prickly when it comes to young entrepreneurs who still think that they can challenge the government.  Oh, when will they grow up?!

However, for those who are not willing to accept the notion that the government is always right, this is a troubling development.  And for CPSC attorneys who represent small companies, best let your clients know that, apparently if you want to fight the CPSC, be prepared to put your entire bank account on the line.

Shihan vs Goliath

As the saga of the magnets ban continues to unfold, last week another chapter was added when the CPSC brought yet another action against Zen Cartoon David and GoliathMagnets, the one company that has refused the CPSC’s demand to do a recall.  But this time the agency sued not only the company but also its young founder, Shihan Qu, in his personal capacity.  The CPSC alleges that Zen purchased, and then illegally resold, the inventory of a competitor, Magnicube, that was negotiating a recall with the CPSC.

The law is pretty clear—it prohibits the sale of a product which a manufacturer (including an importer) has recalled.  However, Mr. Qu argues forcefully in the attached newsletter that the products were totally fungible, one magnet being indistinguishable from another, and it was still legal for him to sell magnets identical to those sold by his competitor.  Mr. Qu argues that Magnicube could have sent its remaining inventory back to the factory in China to be comingled with other identical magnets and then shipped to Zen–a more complex transaction but achieving the same result.

In raising this latest action by the federal government against tiny Zen Magnets, it is not my purpose to argue the merits of the case being brought.  Instead, I raise it because, to me, it poses questions of proportionality and discretion. I have repeatedly expressed my concerns about the agency’s troubling willingness to disregard fair process in an “ends justifies means” mindset, at least with respect to this product.   This latest action seems to smack of a vendetta against the one company that did not give in to the agency’s demands, especially since the issue of whether Zen’s magnets should be recalled is well into the latter stages of litigation and, presumably, will be resolved soon.

The government is no doubt arguing that its latest action is needed to keep products it sincerely believes are unsafe out of the hands of consumers.  However, as noted above, the exact same magnets were easily available to Zen from China at the time so the agency’s action would not accomplish this purpose.   Further, with a ban on prospective sales of these products now going into effect (unless it is overturned by judicial review at some point down the road), consumers seem to be protected.

Recalls—the remedy the agency was originally ostensibly seeking from Zen—have been totally ineffectual in getting this product out of consumers’ hands. (It seems consumers like the product and do not want to hand it over, even for money.)  And remember, in spite of the CPSC’s rule banning magnet sets sold as adult desk toys, it is possible to go online to buy sets of magnets, like those at issue here.  I did so this morning.  As long as they are not advertised as having entertainment value, they can be sold.

I wonder whether this latest action, rather than making the government appear strong, makes it appear vindictive and petty, given the force the federal government can bring against a tiny company that dares to challenge it.  I wonder whether the government could not have advanced whatever safety purpose it had in a less Goliath-like way. I am curious what you think.

The Real World Speaks; The Government Does Not Hear

Last week I traveled to St. Louis University to speak to students attending the school’s Product Safety Managementst-louis-cityscape Course.  This executive education course is presented by the Center for Supply Chain Management Studies at the Cook School of Business at the University and is unique in presenting a concentrated focus on product safety-related issues.  I was asked to discuss how the CPSC is organized and how agency policy and decisions get made and I discussed my perspectives, as a former commissioner, on the agency’s seemingly more contentious and less collaborative approach to product safety.

The class was made up of professionals from small, medium and global businesses with backgrounds that included law, engineering, business and science. The joy of opportunities like this is not only having several hours with engaged and very smart professionals in the classroom, but also having time outside of class to interact informally.  While I hope I imparted knowledge, I know that I learned a great deal.

Boiling it down to a sentence, here was my message to the class:  The CPSC is moving to more aggressive and expansive regulations and more aggressive and punitive enforcement.  For companies that want to stay out of the agency’s sights, they should consider, among other things,

  • implementing strategies to update and fine-tune their compliance programs;
  • making sure that they have appropriate written procedures for addressing safety complaints and can demonstrate those procedures are followed;
  • having and being able to show good control over their supply chain;
  • keeping good records to show a testing program, test results and compliance with applicable regulations; and
  • registering for the Business Portal of the Public Database as one device to know what some consumers are saying about their products.

Of course, safety must always be a core value of the company, and at all levels, including senior management.  Unless that is true, none of these efforts will be truly effective in minimizing a company’s exposure.

I also learned a great deal from the students.  One message especially resonated since it came from several different class members from different types of companies.  These students described the importance their companies placed on regulatory compliance in the face of very constrained resources.  They described the challenges of complying with different regulatory approaches to addressing the same risks, on local, state, national and international levels.  They described different testing methods to measuring compliance—tests mandated by regulatory bodies in the U.S and abroad and by cautious retail customers who want to assure that the CPSC does not appear on their doorstep and have the market power to make those tests happen—with all these tests differing one from the other.  The complaint I heard was that there is an expectation of compliance with no realistic understanding of the level of resource needed for full compliance, given the complexity of the myriad rules that have now been issued.  Nor is there any effort, or feeling of responsibility, on the part of the government to simplify those rules to make them less burdensome so that compliance can be more realistically achieved.

Bottom line from my Midwest journey:  The real world speaks but the government does not hear.

Phthalates NPR: A No-Win for CPSC

Assuming that the Commission does not vote to again extend it, the period for filing comments on its proposal to permanently ban certain phthalates closes in a few days.  At that point the monkey will be really on the back of the agency and none of its choices are very good.

Because the way the statute was written, the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) that Congress directed the agency establish to study the health effects of phthalates, without strong direction from the management of the agency, easily could move into policy issues and this is what has happened with its recommendations.  If the agency holds with the recommendations of the CHAP, it faces sure, and probably successful, litigation at the end of the process.  If it tries to walk back the CHAP recommendations, it gets accused of disregarding “scientific” recommendations protecting children. A real no-win for the agency.

I have written before in this blog about the serious regulatory policy issues that the phthalates rulemaking raises.  For those who are interested in this issue and those who are concerned about the use of cumulative risk assessments, I wanted to bring to your attention an article I authored that appeared today in The Hill Congress Blog publication.  You can find it here.

Should Congress decide to do oversight of the CPSC, there are a number of issues that need examining.  This issue should be added to the list.

Note to CPSC: You Really Dropped a Stitch Here!

I am a knitter.  Knitting teaches patience and is a great way to pass time on an airplane.  While traveling, I missed a recent CPSC recall and am thankful to my friendclip-art-knitting-981445 Lenore Skenazy, the author of the blog Free Range Kids, for bringing to my attention important information about a silent killer—yarn.  Since she said it better than I could, the following is from her blog post:

Gracious me! This brand of yarn can unravel! Have you ever heard of such a thing? It’s just too scary! How irresponsible can a yarn maker be? No wonder the Consumer Product Safety Commission just issued this dire warning:

Name of Product: Bernat Tizzy Yarn

Hazard: In finished knit or crochet items, the yarn can unravel or snag and form a loop, posing an entanglement hazard to young children.

Incidents/Injuries: Bernat has received two reports of children becoming entangled from unraveling or snagging yarn blankets. No injuries have been reported.

Remedy: Consumers should immediately stop using the yarn or finished yarn projects, keep them out of the reach of young children, and contact Bernat for a full refund.

Remember! Children are only safe near items that can never unravel or make a loop. Kindly avoid all necklaces, ponytails, jumbo rubber bands, snakes, shoelaces, licorice whips, octopi, thread, phone cords, scarves, kites, jump ropes, taffy (long form), fishing line, string cheese, and, of course, marionettes. – L.

What is the agency thinking?  While unraveling yarn may be a quality problem (for the company to address with unhappy customers), turning a quality problem into a safety issue takes the agency way outside its mandate.

In an earlier post I addressed my concern that silly recalls can serve to make consumers stop listening.  This certainly qualifies as a silly recall. Consumer safety is not advanced by such a result.  However, if the agency persists in pushing its mandate so that product quality problems are viewed as safety issues warranting a recall, what unravels is any predictable definition of a safety hazard and then safety becomes what the agency says it is at any given time. Now that is a snag folks should be worried about.

Phthalates NPR: Flawed Theory Supported by Flawed Data

risk_measurement_400_clr_5483-300x300On March 16, 2015, the comment period will close for the CPSC’s proposed rule banning specified concentrations of phthalates in children’s toys and child care articles.  While those who make and use phthalates are well aware of this proceeding, it has much broader implications for the entire regulated community.

The proposed rule is flawed not only in terms of substance but also of process.  The manner in which it used a cumulative risk assessment to justify banning products that contribute little, if any, exposure to phthalates has broad and troubling implications that extend well beyond this proceeding.

The proposed rule comes out the report of the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP), established by the CPSIA.  Using a cumulative risk assessment, the CHAP advised, and the Commission majority agreed, that concentrations of the phthalate DINP should be banned in all children’s toys and child care articles.  The CHAP found that “food, rather than children’s toys or child care articles, provides the primary source of exposure to both women and children….”  Nevertheless, the CHAP expressed its concern “that toys and child care articles may contribute to the overall exposure.” (See staff briefing package, “Prohibition of Children’s Toys and Child Care Articles Containing Phthalates”, page 13, emphasis added.)

Cumulative risk assessments can be a useful analytic tool in certain circumstances where risks come from identified multiple sources. However, in this instance, it is very clear that the CHAP had issues about how to do the risk assessment and then how to use it.  Cutting through the scientific jargon, the CHAP report and the CPSC’s proposed rule based on it address a potential health risk by proposing to ban a speculative contributor to the risk.  The notion that this rule will make the marketplace safer is belied by the fact that the CHAP report describes the many other and more primary exposure routes from the other products that contain phthalates—most of which are outside the jurisdiction of the CPSC and many of which are not being used by children.

I believe that the CHAP fell far short of carrying out its duties.  Since the CHAP believed that certain phthalates present health risks, it should have called upon those agencies with jurisdiction to initiate appropriate action rather than just issue its tepid call for more interagency study.   However, for the CHAP go on and “cya”  by recommending regulation of a product class that contributes little, if anything, to the hazard as a way to protect human health is akin to emptying a lake with a teaspoon—lots of effort; little results. And it is an intrusion into a policy area where it has no expertise.

These concerns are amplified by the fact that the CHAP based its findings on stale data, when there is ample evidence that had it used the most recent data available to it, the analysis may well have reached a different conclusion.  For the CPSC, which prides itself on being a “data-driven agency”, to acquiesce in such an inexplicable use of flawed data, much less base a proposed rule on it, is puzzling.  It might lead a cynic to wonder if this was a politically driven decision rather than a scientifically driven one.

Commissioner Beurkle has addressed the shortcomings of the CHAP report in a statement explaining why she could not support the NPR.  It is worth reading.

However, going forward, if the CPSC is going to use cumulative risk assessments to justify banning substances that contribute little if anything to a risk and do so based on stale data and flawed analysis, then all CPSC stakeholders should be concerned.  This is an issue that affects not just the chemical industry.  Those who make and sell products subject to the jurisdiction of the CPSC should weigh in on this troubling dumbing down of science in the name of science.

Retailer Reporting: Something for Nothing?

Over ten years ago, the CPSC compliance staff negotiated an agreement with Wal-Mart that has grown over the years into what is now known as the retailer reporting policy. Under the agreement, Wal-Mart agreed to file weekly reports with the CPSC documenting safety issues reported to its stores about products it sold. This reporting gave the agency important insights into the range of safety issues the world’s largest retailer was seeing. It allowed the agency to get an early heads-up on potential safety issues before they matured into “substantial product hazards.” And Wal-Mart got some protection from allegations that it had failed to report substantial product hazards to the agency.

Because this was such a win-win for both the agency and the company, other large retailers and then several large manufacturers soon began asking to participate in the program as well. In response, the agency expanded the program over the years. However, several years ago, the retailer reporting program was put on hold.

The agency staff has now decided to revise the program. Only selected companies will be “invited” to participate. The revised program makes very clear that participation in the program does not provide a substitute for or otherwise impact any reporting requirements under Section 15(b) of the law. However “consideration” may be given to participating companies should they be faced with subsequent enforcement actions for failure to report. The confidentiality protections applying to Information submitted under Section 15(b) of the law would not apply to these reports.

The staff believes that these changes make the program more transparent and answer long-standing questions about how the program operates. That is certainly true. But the changes also raise several other questions as well. For example, the selective nature of the program and the “consideration”, if any, given to participants does raise troubling fairness issues,  A company wishing to participate and frozen out of the program will have little recourse in challenging the decision of some invisible staffer. What kind of consideration will be available to some but not others?

But more basically, the changes raise the question of why any company should bother to participate. When I raised that question, when I was still a Commissioner, the answer I got was “that it is the right thing for companies to do.” Perhaps there are companies who will find the CPSC staff “invitation” irresistible. (I assume that there will be no measure of bullying associated with these invitations.)  However, there may be others who believe that the effort involved and the benefits to be gained are not worth it. In this case the agency will lose out on an important source of information that could help it identify risks as they come up over the horizon.

However, the biggest concern is a process one. The program has been in place for over ten years. Although it was initiated by the staff, it has grown over the years and it has consumed considerable staff resources. Changes of this magnitude should be placed before the Commission for explanation and approval in a public meeting. The program’s role in gathering useful information should be better explained and it should be part of the agency’s annual operating plan. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the program and the changes being made, this is something that Commissioners should consider and approve, not delegate to staff.


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