Posts Tagged 'Testing Rule'

Shopping the Global E-Mall, Round 2

In my last post, I discussed the growing phenomenon of e-commerce sales directly to consumers from foreign (Chinese) manufacturers. My concern is that the regulatory stance of the CPSC—asserting that a foreign manufacturer is legally responsible for compliance with all U.S. safety standards when a U.S. consumer buys a product directly from that manufacturer—is both naïve and unenforceable.

Therefore, I was interested to see the announcement last week from the CPSC that it has entered into a voluntary agreement with Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce direct sales company, to work with the agency to try to monitor its platforms for dangerous products.  Kudos to the agency for negotiating this agreement, as modest as it is.

According to press reports, Alibaba handles more e-commerce business than Amazon.com and eBay Inc. combined and, as a platform for third parties, it controls as much as 80 per cent of the Chinese e-commerce business.  Obviously, Alibaba can be a potent ally in policing the marketplace for unsafe products.

Looking at the reported details of the agreement, it is not clear whether it will prove to advance consumer safety in the global e-mall or merely serve as a fig leaf to which the parties can point to show they are doing something.  Alibaba has apparently agreed to block sales of up to 15 recalled products upon request from the CPSC.  Since a substantial number of the over-400 recalls the CPSC does each year are of products from China, there should be no problem finding candidates for this list.  All concede that this agreement is not enforceable. It remains to be seen how aggressive Alibaba will be carrying it out over time.

More interesting is the company’s agreement to make available information about safety requirements to importers into the United States.  U.S. safety requirements are not easily understood, especially those issued since 2009 in response to the CPSIA—see the labyrinthine regulations dealing with testing and certification for examples. Any way to get information to those who are honestly trying to comply can do nothing but help.

Whether this agreement is a modest, but effective first step or just another counterfeit product remains to be seen.  Stay tuned.

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Testing Assumptions

This week I had the pleasure of speaking to the leadership and staff of the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation.  The association accredits third party testing laboratories to a wide range of standards including, but not limited to those issued by the CPSC.  My presentation was an opportunity to discuss how the agency has implemented the CPSIA with a special focus on the agency’s testing requirements.  However, this was also an opportunity to have a free-wheeling conversation about the role that testing and testing laboratories play, and should play, in product safety.

I asked these experts whether third party testing of children’s products was the most effective way in all cases to assure regulatory compliance.  Interestingly, these representative of the testing laboratories agreed that while third party testing is the most expensive compliance tool, it is not always the most effective tool.  They pointed to the EPA’s green appliance regulations as an example of an effective regulatory regime that does not mandate third party testing. They pointed to NIST’s accreditation of first, second and third party testing laboratories to make the point that it is possible to oversee the integrity of in-house testing.

I pointed to the rule to require warning labels on slings—cloth infant carriers—that the agency plans to proposed next week, asking whether sending slings to a third party testing laboratory to “test” whether the label was correct was an efficient use of resources.  While the audible answer was “probably not”, judging by the body language of the folks in the room, the real answer was “are you kidding me?!”

I asked these experts about whether testing variability occurs among different labs or within the same lab.  The answer I got was “Of course it exists.  Everyone knows that.”  Apparently, everyone but the CPSC. This is an issue I tried to get the agency to address when I was a Commissioner but agency leadership was steadfast in refusing to even see lab variability as an issue.

We talked about the feasibility of laboratories discounting prices to small businesses who are suffering mightily under the burden of CPSC-required testing.  Commissioner Adler has suggested that laboratories do that since the testing requirements of the law and the CPSC regulations have provided laboratories with such a business windfall.  The conclusion of these experts was that this is not a workable option for a wide variety of reasons.

However, we did talk at some length about the role testing laboratories could play in assuring that testing resources are directed at those products that pose the greatest risk and are not wasted on unnecessary testing.  I challenged the industry to participate constructively in suggesting ways to reduce testing burdens beyond the rather unimaginative actions now being taken by the CPSC. While the industry may experience some short-terms gains by a system that requires excessive and burdensome third party testing, everyone, including testing laboratories, benefits from a system that deploys resources efficiently and reduces the costs that product sellers (and consumers) pay to assure safety in the marketplace.

 

Betting on the CPSC–never a sure bet

Earlier this week the Senate Commerce Committee had a marathon confirmation hearing with several subcabinet nominees from various federal agencies.  The hearing included in this disparate group Commissioner Robert Adler who has been nominated for a second seven year term on the CPSC.  Because of the number of nominees before the Committee and votes on the Senate floor, the hearing was rather truncated without much probing of Commissioner Adler’s views on issues before the CPSC.

Nevertheless, Senator Thune, the senior Republican on the Committee, did ask Commissioner Adler to explain the agency’s delay in implementing PL 112-28, which directed the agency to work to reduce the costs of third party testing.  Senator Thune made similar inquiries with the two earlier nominees, demonstrating that he has concerns with the manner that the agency is implementing the law.

Commissioner Adler’s response to Senator Thune was both interesting and disturbing for at least two reasons.  First, Commissioner Adler said that because of the way the law is written, it is “not easy to come up with” constructive ways to reduce burdens.  Huh?!  The public has presented many suggestions over the years as has the agency staff.  What is not easy is to get the Commission to devote the staff resources to get the job done.  This is a problem of the Commission’s own making and clearly the Commission does not want to clean up after itself—to do so would implicate several of the rules the agency put in place without regard to the burdens them impose.  The Congress told the CPSC that if it needed additional authorities to get the job done, then it was to come back to Congress with a request for tool to do the job.  No such report has been sent.  In other words, it is too hard to do the job, but the agency will not ask for what it needs to do the job.  In the meantime, scare resources are being spent on testing that does not advance safety.

Second, to demonstrate his commitment to carrying out Congressional direction, Commission Adler pointed to the one proceeding the agency has ongoing to address burden reduction.  This proceeding is to come up with “determinations” that certain products do not and cannot contain phthalates and various heavy metals.  This determinations proceeding, first suggested in 2011, finds precedent in similar action the agency took in 2009 to determine certain materials did not contain lead and so did not require testing.  However, the lead determinations took the agency a matter of months to put in place not the years that the current proceeding is eating up.

Commission Adler also stated that the determinations will solve the problem saying that the “small businesses I have talked to want expanded determinations” as if this is all they want.  Of course, if you are a small business making toys out of natural wood, you do not want to have to test for phthalates and heavy metals when you know they are not present.  That is pretty obvious. However, there are many other small businesses who look to the federal government not to put in place regulations that impose costs without added safety benefits; who want the federal government to consider laws in other jurisdictions and minimize repetitive testing; and who want to be able to have manufacturing processes that are flexible enough to meet market demands without having to stop to do third party testing when this does not add to safety but does impact their bottom line and their ability to expand and create jobs.

If confirmed, Commissioner Adler will be in office until 2021.  I was thinking about starting a pool on whether the agency will actually complete meaningful action to reduce testing burdens before his new term expires.  But given the agency’s pace and progress so far, betting on the agency to act is not a sure bet.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein

 For the third (or is it the fourth?) time in as many years, the CPSC is again “addressing” the issue of reducing third-party testing burdens.  For those who have already albert-einstein1commented repeatedly on this issue, Einstein’s definition of insanity may seem especially apt.  In spite of direction from the Congress to either address testing burdens on its own or report on appropriate statutory authority needed to do so, the agency has repeatedly asked for comment but done nothing to actually reduce the testing burdens that have been so well documented.

This time the agency has announced that it will be holding a workshop, on April 3, focusing on reducing testing burdens associated with the regulations dealing with phthalates and lead content and the eight substances listed in the ASTM F-963 Toy Standard.  The purpose is consider whether it is possible to determine that certain materials, irrespective of manufacturing origin or process, will always comply with agency regulations and therefore do not need testing.  The agency is interested in worldwide production processes—past, current and, interestingly, future—but only with respect to the three areas noted above.  In other words, tell them how past and current materials and manufacturing processes, and looking into a crystal ball, those that might be used in the future throughout the world show that the existing regulations in the three areas always will be complied with.  Anything else is outside the scope of this inquiry.

Because the agency’s scope of inquiry is so narrow, it follows that any relief coming out of it will also be very narrow.  So while I encourage either comments (due by April 17) or participation in the workshop (sign up by March 13), I do not have high hopes that meaningful burden reduction will be the end product.   At best, there might be a slight adjustment to the list of materials the agency has determined do not and cannot contain lead and, hence, do not need testing.  The further development of a list of materials determined not to have phthalates and the other substances listed in the toy standard may also be of help.  At worst, the information collected will go into the maw of the agency and be digested with the other information the agency has already collected, but with no further useful output any time soon, other than for the agency to look like it is busy doing something.

There have been many practical suggestions made over the past three years that, if implemented, would reduce the needless waste of resources that the testing requirements have added to the supply chain and which consumers have to pay for.  But the agency has been operating in a world that values endless process over meaningful results.

Einstein also said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Unfortunately, it does not look like any new thinking will be happening soon.

CPSC Burden Reduction Mantra: “Maybe One of These Years . . .”

An interesting op-ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal pointed to how the regulatory process impedes efforts called for by President Obama, among others, to shore up this country’s infrastructure.  The piece, written by Philip Howard, President of the nonpartisan reform group Common Good, focused on how interminable environmental review can stymy public projects and made several interesting suggestions for change.

As I read Mr. Howard’s article, I could not help but think about how the regulatory process has been used at the CPSC to slow activity, mandated by Congress and required by common sense, to reform the product testing regime dictated by CPSC regulations.  Recall that the testing rules setting the parameters for when products must be tested by independent third party testing labs imposed such impressive costs on the system that Congress told the agency to find ways to reduce those costs.  That was in 2011.  As we head into 2014, the agency has managed to avoid adopting any concrete relief to those who are now required to conduct unnecessary and expensive testing.  The Commission has done this by repeatedly asking for public comment on the same questions over and over again.

Last week the Commissioners met to adopt an operating plan for the rest of FY 2014.  Predictably, the issue of reducing testing burdens came up and, predictably, the Commissioners again punted.  This time, the agency staff was directed to finish their analysis of the public comments on a limited set of suggestions for relief by the end of FY 2014.  A majority of Commissioners rejected the notion of asking Congress for statutory changes suggested by the agency staff to make operation and review of safety processes more efficient.  Clearly, a majority of CPSC Commissioners do not see reducing unnecessary testing burdens as a core duty of the agency.

It is remarkable that for the past three years, product manufacturers have been conducting expensive testing that most (outside of a handful of advocates with a political agenda and several CPSC Commissioners) do not see as necessary to assure the safety that American families rightly expect.  That those families have to shoulder the costs of this added weight to the system seems to be a forgotten fact. I know that I have written about this issue before.  But as a consumer, I am mad.  I am mad that my choices are being limited and that, for example, I cannot buy beloved toys that are safe but are no longer being imported only because of the CPSC testing rules.  I am mad that I have to overpay for safety regulations of questionable value.

Rather than blindly defending regulations that are costing consumers without advancing safety, the CPSC should give them a thanksgiving gift:  how about getting down to work and stopping the procrastination on this.  It is time for big strides, not baby steps.

It’s He-ere . . .

Today, the CPSC’s children’s product periodic testing and certification rule goes into effect. Perhaps the most sweeping rule in the agency’s history, it was spurred by 2008’s Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Even before becoming effective, it has substantially affected the agency, the regulated community, and consumers. Starting today, those effects will grow.

After much debate about its details (more on that shortly), the rule is now the law. It sets massive new requirements for the CPSC’s regulated community. To comply with it, companies and labs should have developed systems and procedures to comply with the new requirements and these should all now largely be in place.

Even so, tweaks to those systems will, of course, be necessary. Some of those changes are things that manufacturers and labs can take care of on their own. Others, however, will probably require attention from agency staff and from the Commission. As you encounter problems with this rule, make sure that the agency and I hear about them. Your voice can make a difference. Already, based on pre-implementation concerns, both Congress and the CPSC have made changes to the rule. And as the rule now goes into effect, we can only expect more concerns to be revealed. When they arise, let us know about them.

Of course, as readers of this blog already know, this rule is not my ideal rule. During the many debates leading up to today, I have already filled enough of this space discussing my disagreements with the Commission’s decisions to belabor them here in any detail. To sum it up, I believe we overstated the necessity for third-party testing, ignored opportunities to make the rule more effective, created “gotcha” traps for companies, and paid lip-service to Congress’s demands that we look to make it less expensive. The result is an unwieldy rule that (because of its name) might make consumers feel safer, but holds only speculative hopes of actually making them safer. All the while, they now have the certainty of fewer choices at higher prices.

Yet, though I remain concerned about the unnecessary damage this rule threatens—and as I continue to work to improve it—make no mistake: It is the law. Companies must heed it even where they disagree with it, and violators should expect a visit from our compliance staff. We have lots of resources for helping businesses understand this rule and how to meet its demands, especially for small businesses. If you have not already figured out your plans for complying with the rule, hurry up and fix that. We surely will all learn a lot along the way, but there is no more time for waiting.


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