At the core of the the American consumer product safety system is the reliance on companies to tell the truth. The truth is not every company is all that honest.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday announced that Mega Brands agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a complaint that honesty was not the policy when a Washington state toddler in 2005 swallowed magnets from its Magnetix line and died. To be fair to Mega, which makes tons of kids products, the affected product line was under a different company's ownership -- Rose Art -- at the time the boy died. Canada-based Mega acquired Rose Art that year.
Rose Art, the CPSC said, claimed it had no incident records regarding the Magnetix construction sets -- which use magnetic balls to join together pieces. In March 2006, the company recalled 4 million sets for kids under six.
Recalls can be confusing. A recall doesn't necessarily mean you have to give back the product, have it repaired or throw it away. It could mean a recommended change in how the product is used, who should use it or something similarly unlikely to get your attention.
So, that recall simply served as an advisory to parents to keep little kids from playing with the magnetic building sets. What Rose Art had not told the CPSC was how many other kids had problems with the toys and how many other kids had not died, but had suffered.
More than 1,100 complaints about the magnets falling out of the pieces had been lodged with Rose Art by March 2006, the CPSC found out after the Mega officials had taken over the operation. A year later, after receiving reports of 25 children suffering intestinal injuries requiring surgery to remove the swallowed magnets, Mega expanded the recall to all ages. So it took a year after the confusing recall was issued that applied an age limit for the company -- and the government -- to realize it had better just tell everyone to stop using the toys.
The company has since said it has improved the manufacturing process to keep the small magnets from falling out and has rebranded the line as MagNext.
This process can be far more insidious. Companies make calculated decisions to allow dangerous and defective products to remain on the market. It is far cheaper to conduct a recall after all the products have been sold at retail than to have to scrap or retrofit a full inventory of products sitting in warehouses.
That would be the honorable thing to do. It would be the more thing to do. And it would be the legal thing to do.
The law requires companies to take such action within 24 hours of learning of a "substantial product hazard." But being pursued by the CPSC doesn't inspire the same fear as being audited by the IRS or investigated by the FBI.
CPSC officials are limited in how much they can fine a company, so the monetary penalties are not always a deterrent when a big product line is at stake. And, as active as the CPSC has appeared going after lead toys, it still suffers from the same fundamental problems it always has regarding the unwillingness of certain companies to be forthcoming.
More than a decade ago, the CPSC spent so much time negotiating the terms of a recall of an infant car seat, that a few dozen more children were hurt during the discussions. Why? The CPSC traditionally doesn't announce a problem until it has a solution. The agency's late discovery of problems and its policy of negotiating with the companies has unnecessarily dragged out the process and caused untold thousands of people to keep using products officials already knew were problematic.
The CPSC has been guided by Nancy Nord, a former corporate lawyer, who has endured a rocky tenure as acting chairman of the commission since 2006. She has resisted numerous calls for her resignation, including a recent demand by members of Congress. Regardless of what she does, a seat on the commission and its permanent chairmanship remain open and it's long since time for the sea to change at a safety agency whose work affects absolutely everyone in this country.
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