The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) is stretched to the breaking point in its effort to keep up with the flood of products coming into the United States from overseas. Over the last 10 years, imports have risen by 101 percent; last year, Chinese-produced goods accounted for nearly 42 percent of the total. This unprecedented volume, combined with short staffing and low funds, “strained the agency’s resources,” Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the CPSC, testified in July 2007. The agency recalled 473 products — more than 80 percent of which were imports, in fiscal year 2007. But according to watchdog group OMBWatch, “neither CPSC regulations nor enforcement practices have kept up with a changing marketplace.” In countries like China, where products can be made at a reduced cost, companies often cut corners to save money, but do so at the expense of consumer safety. After summer 2007, when more than 2.5 million toys had to be recalled, Nord issued a statement that “vital talks” were taking place between the CPSC and the Chinese government. Nonetheless, watchdogs say that major blame falls on the CSPC for its failure to oversee the shipment, distribution, and sales of toxic products to American consumers. “When it comes to CPSC’s ability to stop unsafe products from reaching the market, they fall short,” Senators Dick Durbin and Amy Klobuchar wrote to Nord in August 2007. “We must get to the bottom of how this is happening and stop these unsafe toys from reaching our store shelves and our kids’ hands.” A CPSC spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, but Commissioner Thomas Moore told Congress in April that “last year’s heightened activities with respect to imported toys, in particular, clearly illustrate the benefits of a strong CPSC federal presence in today’s consumer product marketplace.”
In 2007 the President’s Interagency Import Safety Working Group issued a plan for participating in international forums and global agreements while taking stricter enforcement actions. In response, CPSC has made agreements with 15 foreign agencies, including China, to establish close working relationships on product safety. In January 2008, the CPSC created a new import surveillance division, placing full-time inspectors at U.S. ports. Additionally, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 authorized the CPSC to implement mandatory safety standards for imports, require testing by an independent laboratory, and subject foreign manufacturers to civil and criminal penalties if necessary. It remains unclear, however, if CPSC will have enough inspectors and other staff to do its job properly. In late November, Nord said that due to being “resource constrained,” a database required by the act has yet to be started, and that other major CSPC initiatives have also stalled, as staff have had to “pull back” on the creation of voluntary safety standards.