SaferProducts.gov, a new government database of consumer product safety complaints and manufacturer responses, has been controversial from its earliest stages. When the database officially launched this month, some businesses and trade associations renewed their calls for closing, postponing, or modifying it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a 2010 letter to the Senate, said the database “will lead to consumer confusion and give rise to lawsuits based on a rumor repeated through the echo chamber of the Internet.” On the other hand, on its website ConsumerReports.org called SaferProducts.gov “a major milestone that will empower consumers not only to learn about the safety complaints on the products they own, but to file their own complaints to warn other consumers.
The database is the product of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) as mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (Public Law No. 110-314). The law, referred to as the CPSIA, was passed in the aftermath of numerous product recalls in 2007, particularly recalls of toys imported from China. The new database is intended to reduce risks and injuries by informing the general public of a potentially dangerous product earlier in the complaint process. (The database is just one change made by the CPSIA; other provisions have been more or less controversial during the legislative and regulatory processes.)
Before SaferProducts.gov, copies of consumer product safety complaints were only available through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or if they appeared in a CPSC report on the product. Now the CPSC will post consumer complaints online for the public to access after an approximately 2-week period of review by the CPSC and the product manufacturer. This change in procedure is a large part of the current debate. Manufacturers fear that undocumented or erroneous reports made public could damage their reputation and their business before they have time to make an adequate investigation and response. Consumer organizations applaud the much quicker and open communication of reported risks.
Here, in general terms, is how the new system works. The CPSC will continue to collect reports of dangerous product incidents from multiple channels, including telephone, email, postal mail, and online, just as it has done in the past. The CPSC has up to 5 days to review a report to ensure that it does not offer materially inaccurate or insubstantial information. If the report is adequate, the CPSC will refer the report to the product’s manufacturer. The manufacturer then has 10 days to address the complaint and, if it chooses, can post its response in the database. After this review process, the original consumer complaint and any manufacturer response is made public online. Information about mandatory or voluntary recalls of the product will also appear in the database. CPSC has said that submitted reports will not become public if they are incomplete, “materially inaccurate,” or expose confidential information. Reports submitted anonymously will also not be made public.
SaferProducts.gov has a clean, nicely designed interface, with tabs for three tasks: report an unsafe product; search recalls and reports; and, for businesses, register and report. Businesses that register for access to the site’s Business Portal can use a secure connection to receive and respond to CPSC communications. Businesses can use the portal to make a claim of confidentiality or of inaccurate information in a report. The site has a lengthy FAQ section for businesses, covering commenting, registering, reporting, maintaining confidentiality and accuracy, self-reporting, and brand issues such as licensed brand names.
Consumers (broadly defined to include all who may be in a position to report risk or injury, including hospitals, fire departments, and state attorneys general) can use the website to file a report or to search existing reports. The name of a report filer is considered confidential and will not be disclosed to the public; it may be disclosed to the manufacturer only with the reporter’s consent indicated on the report form. The manufacturer may be the product’s manufacturer, its importer, or a private labeler.
Consumers and researchers can search the full database—or recalls only—by keyword anywhere or, in advanced search, by keyword in the product, company/brand, or model fields. Search results can be filtered by date, location of reported injury, victim’s age range, and the presence of injury or death information. The results can be sorted by date (useful for timelines) or relevance. Researchers can share results on major social networks such as Facebook.com and Twitter.com, and can export results as a comma-separated value (.csv) file.
SaferProducts.gov does not have its own public alerting service. Consumers can be alerted to recalls announced by CPSC and other regulatory agencies by subscribing to the existing Recalls.gov email alert service. Recalls.gov also offers Android smartphone or mobile web apps for announcements. The CPSC has a Twitter.com account, @OnSafety, but it carries a variety of agency news.
The agencies contributing to Recalls.gov also have their own consumer alert platforms. The reporting form for SaferProducts.gov directs consumers to the websites for government agencies regulating products outside of the CPSC’s jurisdiction, including:
The first reports from consumers likely will not appear on SaferProducts.gov until late March because of the 2-week processing period from report submission to publication. Experience with the full process may affect the database debate. U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) successfully amended H.R. 1 in the current congress to defund the database program, but H.R. 1 did not progress beyond the House. Similar legislation could be brought forward later, of course. In the meantime, CPSC has posted all documents related to its public notices and negotiations with consumers and businesses to SaferProducts.gov, in the About section.