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Good News for Consumers -- Congress Reforms the CPSC -- Food Safety Must Be Next

At a time when our government has been so dysfunctional, Congress finally came together to pass a new law to protect American children from dangerous and defective toys, baby bottles, and other children's articles.
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On August 14, 2008, President Bush signed into law the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (the "Act"). This legislation, sponsored by Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR), comes a year after last summer's recalls of millions of toys. It took the recalls and the deaths and hospitalizations of children resulting from magnets, collapsing cribs, lead trinkets, and toys filled with poisonous liquids to spur the federal government into action. The Chicago Tribune deserves great credit for initially focusing public attention on dangerous toys in the spring of 2007.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was founded in the early 1970s but its power and budget languished in a political climate which has favored less government regulation of economic activity. In recent years, the CPSC has not been effective in protecting consumers from businesses which did not assure the quality and safety of their products.

Highlights of the Act include: bans on lead and phthalates in children's products; pre-sale testing by independent laboratories; more resources and legal powers for the CPSC; stricter penalties for companies that violate consumer product safety laws; and more authority for state attorneys general to protect consumers in their states. All of these provisions build on past quality assurance and legal strategies for consumer protection.

There are two new provisions in the Act which could prove to be game changers because they empower consumers and employees. First, consumers will now have a publicly accessible database to report and learn about hazards posed by unsafe products. This will enable Americans to find out about bad products early on - not months after injuries are reported to the CPSC and a public recall is conducted. Secondly, employees working in companies and other organizations, who see dangerous products being distributed to the public, will have a chance to warn regulators and be legally protected from employer retaliation. Congress has previously protected whistleblowers working at nuclear plants, for government contractors, and in financial reporting situations. Now for the first time, employees who have been powerless to persuade their organizations to put safety first, will be able to protect the public, without having to suffer retaliation from their employer, such as, negative performance reviews, demotions, salary cuts, and even loss of their jobs.

At a time in our history, when our federal government has been so dysfunctional on so many fronts, Congress finally came together to pass a new law to protect American children from dangerous and defective toys, baby bottles, and other children's articles. The lobbyists who attempted to weaken the final bill were defeated.

Of course, opponents of the Act are predicting more lawsuits to result from it. The truth is that businesses which invest time and money in quality assurance and product safety can successfully defend lawsuits. The fact that this reform legislation was sorely needed after so many defective products were recalled in 2007 (and earlier) shows that the philosophy of unfettered markets is badly discredited. Just like sporting competitions need referees and judges, our capitalist marketplace needs to have sensible and pro-active regulation that punishes the bad actors, rewards ethical companies, and protects all consumers, especially our littlest ones.

Congress must turn its attention to food safety. Even though many bills have been filed since the 2006 and 2007 recalls of spinach and pet food, our food safety problems have continued to escalate this year. We have endured the tomato and serrano pepper salmonella fiasco. We have been harmed by the huge meat recalls originating from plants in California, Iowa and Nebraska; places where illegal child labor and exploitation of immigrants, animal cruelty and unsanitary packing processes have taken place. The time for action on food safety is now.