WASHINGTON (AP) — After an unprecedented year of toy recalls, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is adding staff at the nation's busiest ports and pledging to work more closely with U.S. Customs to stop suspect imports and identify potential hazards before toys hit the market.
Addressing the National Press Club on Monday, acting CPSC chief Nancy Nord vigorously defended her safety record but said she stood ready to embrace major reform at the embattled agency. Congress provided the CPSC with an additional $20 million for the current fiscal year, but has stalled on legislation that would significantly strengthen its regulatory powers.
Under the new initiatives, CPSC will begin to place full-time staff at some of the nation's busiest ports, such as Seattle. CPSC is being given access to real-time information and data from Customs officials about shipments bound for the U.S. so that CPSC staff can help pinpoint high-risk products.
CPSC also plans to boost port inspection of toys, fireworks, electrical products and other goods considered potentially high-risk, and will conduct a study of specific imports to help determine safety compliance.
''Toys are safer,'' said Nord, contending that for every time there may be a safety problem, there are hundreds of inspections done right. ''The increase in recalls indicates more effective enforcement on a broader range of product attributes; they do not indicate there are more dangerous products on store shelves than in previous years.''
Still, she added, ''Change is inevitable, and that's where my focus will be in 2008.''
Nord also said she is seeking to bolster the agency's ''early warning'' detection system for children's products such as cribs, bassinets and play yards. The goal is to foster better agency communication and collaboration, as well as to ''connect the dots'' among safety complaints, allowing the CPSC to detect patterns in potential hazards as they emerge.
Nord's announcement comes after a year of harsh criticism, from Congress and consumer groups, of CPSC enforcement following a record number of recalls. The agency's staff has dropped from almost 800 employees in 1974 to an all-time low of about 400 employees now. Nord also has come under fire for accepting at least three free trips, worth thousands of dollars, from industry, purportedly to share information about CPSC priorities and discuss toy safety.
On Monday, Nord, who has defended the trips as legal, bemoaned the overall criticism as unfair, contending it was motivated more by politics than a desire for meaningful reform. She noted that the CPSC does not have broad powers similar to the Food and Drug Administration to test and approve all products before they go on the market.
''Even the presidential candidates are stepping all over each other to get into the action,'' Nord said. ''While using CPSC as a political tool may yield short-term gains — both for the politicians who use us this way as well as for the bottom line of the agency — I think that in the long run this is not a good trend.''
Regarding congressional reform, Nord urged the Senate to embrace a measure passed by the House last month that would ban lead from children's products, increase caps on civil penalties, require toy testing by independent labs and boost funding for the next several years. A broader measure in the Senate that is partly opposed by Nord and the manufacturing industry would also require information about product hazards, such as consumer complaints, to be made public.
''Despite all the hoopla, we do not have a single reported death, injury or illness caused by lead from any of the recalled toys,'' Nord added, citing choking on small toy parts as a greater risk to children.