Consumer product manufacturers, importers and retailers have spent the past six months scrambling to implement the comprehensive requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). As key deadlines have approached recently, those requirements have changed on an almost daily basis. Under the Obama Administration, manufacturers can expect additional pressure from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) on CPSIA implementation, as well as continued scrutiny from Congress.
All those affected by the CPSIA would agree that its implementation has not gone smoothly. While there are a host of causes for this failure - ridiculously short deadlines, ambiguous statutory language, continued underfunding and understaffing of CPSC, the lack of a quorum of Commissioners for much of the last four years - the blame appears to have fallen entirely at the feet of CPSC Chair Nancy Nord. She has suffered scathing attacks from Congressional leaders, consumer groups, and even her one fellow Commissioner over CPSC's implementation of the new law.
The new administration will have the opportunity to appoint at least three more Commissioners, returning the agency to a full five member roster for the first time in many years. That action alone is likely to cause a significant change in how the Commission works. Pamela Gibson, former CPSC executive director under the Clinton Administration and consumer advocate with US PIRG, briefed President Obama on CPSC issues during the transition and is a frontrunner for the Chairmanship. Her approach can be expected to focus on strict enforcement and stretching the bounds of CPSC's jurisdiction and powers. Other candidates mentioned to date for Chairman or Commissioner slots share her background and perspective, e.g. Alan Korn of Safe Kids USA and Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) has taken over the chair of House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees CPSC. Clearly, strict congressional scrutiny of CPSC will continue for the foreseeable future. Manufacturers, especially those that may be involved with high-profile recalls, can likely expect to face congressional subpoenas seeking both documents and hearing testimony.
CPSIA requirements will continue to become effective through the next two and a half years. A more activist CPSC may well bring a significantly more strict interpretation of the CPSIA, as well as an aggressive enforcement posture, more use of forced recalls and civil penalties, and shorter deadlines for implementation of voluntary recalls.
Currently, guidance on key CPSIA issues has been painfully slow in coming. Significant issues remain unresolved or in dispute, or have been resolved on the very brink of their effective dates. One up side of the coming changes at CPSC is that, at a minimum, it may give stakeholders more certainty in what will be required of them.
Given these concerns, manufacturers, importers and all stakeholders need to take a hard look at their current risk management systems as they implement the CPSIA. Systems to oversee the work of foreign suppliers, detect and communicate emerging product safety signals, ensure that those signals are evaluated and tracked to ensure the appropriate response is made at the appropriate time, and provide a fast, thorough response to consumer, agency or congressional inquiries will be more important than ever.