Outside editorial: Consumer watchdog agency lacks bark, bite

Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A U.S. Senate subcommittee last week began looking into why Elmo, Barbie, Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora the Explorer and other toys decorated with lead paint in China were given to American toddlers to handle, chew and lick.

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Judging from an oversized illustration positioned behind the senators at the Sept. 12 hearing in Washington, they're also concerned about, to pick just two examples, how poison-laced pet food from China made it to American store shelves and how Americans came to be driving on defective Chinese tires that blow out on highways.

Part of the answer, the senators discovered, is that the government's consumer watchdog is practically paralyzed, unconscious and, it appears, not very motivated at the top.

In theory, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is supposed to prevent such things. The federal agency was formed in the 1970s to ensure that consumer products were safe. In truth, it never had much of a bite. The maximum fine it can levy is $1.8 million, pocket change for many major corporations.

At American ports, the agency has a relative handful of inspectors checking for unfit products in the daily tsunami of imports. All those defective Chinese products didn't slip in under the inspectors' noses; there were hardly any noses sniffing.

The acting commission chairwoman is Nancy Nord. Her credentials on consumer safety and protection come via Nord's former employers: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business lobbying group, and the American Corporate Counsel Association. Testifying at the hearing, she was evasive and condescending.

Even so, senators called for giving the commission power to ban all lead in toys and money to increase its inspectors in the field and testers in the laboratory. Such authority is long overdue, although it would fly in the face of manufacturers who have long preferred voluntary guidelines. The Bush administration has been happy to oblige them.

But in the wake of what has become a continuous stream of reports about tainted and, in some cases, deadly products, the Toy Industry Association last week asked the government to impose mandatory standards for safety testing. Such a rigorous certification program - like one used in Europe - might have caught problem toys before they reached the shelves.

The job of enforcing new toy standards, however, would fall to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which right now lacks the money, people, equipment and leadership to accomplish that task.

At the hearing, subcommittee member Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., put it this way: "Those who have argued for so many years that we have to get government out of our lives understand that there are moments when we need government, when we need someone to make certain that products on the shelves are always going to be safe. We need to step up to that responsibility."

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