The federal government is ready to make public thousands of complaints it receives each year about safety problems with various consumer products. The compilation of consumer complaints, set to be launched online in March by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has been hailed by consumer advocates as a resource that will revolutionize the way people make buying decisions.
But major manufacturing and industry groups have raised concerns about the public database, due to the lack of accountability. Competitors or others with political motives could post inaccurate claims, and the agency will not be able to investigate most of the complaints.
But agency officials say they have built in safeguards to prevent such abuse and have carefully balanced the interests of consumers and manufacturers. Today an online preview of how the database will work went live for public review.
The new system was created as part of a landmark consumer product safety law passed by Congress in 2008. It has taken shape amid bitter partisan divisions at the CPSC, with Democratic appointees backing it and Republican appointees deriding it as a waste of taxpayer money that could damage businesses.
The CPSC already collects reports of defective products from a wide range of sources, including consumers, health-care providers, death certificates and media accounts.
But most of that information is shielded from public view. Until now, the only way for consumers to access safety complaints is to file a public-records request with the CPSC. The agency is then required by law to consult with the manufacturer before releasing information about their products, and the company can protest or sue to stop disclosure.
Previously, if the agency considered a dangerous product, it would negotiate a recall with the manufacturer, a process that can take months or years. Meanwhile, unwitting shoppers continue to buy the item. Under the new system, a complaint filed by a consumer will be posted for anyone to read within 15 days.
When a consumer files a complaint, the CPSC has five days to notify the manufacturer, which in turn has 10 days to respond. A company can challenge the complaint as false, argue that it will give away a trade secret, or submit a response. The response will be published alongside the complaint in the database.
If a company says a complaint is false or would disclose confidential business information, the CPSC will decide whether to withhold or publish the complaint. Those safeguards will protect companies, agency officials said.
Anyone filing a complaint must identify themselves, but that information will not be published and would be disclosed to the manufacturer only with the consumer’s permission.
The database will not include peeves about reliability or quality, only information about defects that can cause injury or death. And it is restricted to the 15,000 types of consumer goods overseen by the CPSC, which do not include food, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, tobacco, automobiles or tires.
Only one other federal agency – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – keeps a similar database. That database allows consumers to post complaints about cars, tires or child car seats but does not permit manufacturers an opportunity to post a rebuttal.
The agency, which received about 16,000 consumer complaints in 2009, does not know how many to expect in the new system. The database, which is scheduled to be launched March 11, will be available at www.saferproducts.gov.