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Group says delayed recalls a public hazard

/ Source: The Associated Press

The federal government's product safety agency put consumers at risk by taking too long to inform the public about several defective products, a consumer advocacy group said Thursday.

A report by Public Citizen found that in 46 cases in the last five years the Consumer Product Safety Commission took more than 200 days to notify the public of hazardous products.

That's in addition to an average of 2.7 years it took the companies to report the problems to the CPSC, the group said.

A National Association of Manufacturers executive said the report was "misleading" because the 46 cases comprise about 2 percent of all products the agency recalled since 2002.

Most recalls are announced within 30 days of a report of a defective product, said Rosario Palmieri, the group's vice president.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, acknowledged that the agency recalls 500 products annually, but said her group's report focused on the most egregious cases in which the agency fined companies.

"There's no excuse for manufacturers waiting nearly three years before telling the CPSC about a defective product that can kill people — or for the CPSC taking another seven months to negotiate a recall and warn the public," Claybrook said.

The products in the 46 cases were recalled and included a toy with a loose nail fastener made by Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price division, a treadmill that spontaneously accelerated to 16.5 miles per hour made by Johnson Health Tech Co. and all-terrain vehicles with loose oil lines that burned 18 consumers, made by Medina, Minneapolis-based Polaris Industries Inc.

The report comes as the Senate considers legislation to overhaul the product safety agency. Public Citizen and other advocacy groups are squaring off with manufacturers and retailers over several aspects of the bill, including provisions to make it easier for the agency to disclose information.

A CPSC spokeswoman said the agency notifies consumers "as early as possible once the hazard has been identified and the means to a remedy exists." Manufacturers are required to notify the agency within 24 hours of learning of a possible defect. The agency then investigates to determine if a hazard exists.

The agency fines companies that "fail to meet their reporting obligations," said CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese.

The CPSC fined the companies in the 46 cases $20.8 million, or an average of $452,000 per violation, Public Citizen said.

One reason for the delay, Public Citizen charged, is CPSC's fear of lawsuits by manufacturers, who can sue the agency to prevent it from disclosing information to the public.

Mike Lemov, senior legislative counsel at Public Citizen, said the group isn't aware of examples of such suits. But "it's not the fact of a lawsuit being filed, it's the threat," he added.

The group urged Congress to eliminate that right in legislation that lawmakers are considering to reform the agency.

A Senate bill would eliminate manufacturers' right to sue, but that provision isn't included in a similar House measure, Public Citizen said. The House bill, which was approved in December, would allow the agency to notify the public of defects immediately if health and safety are threatened, Palmieri said.

The legislation is in response to record levels of product recalls in 2007, including millions of toys made in China. The recalls prompted widespread criticism of the CPSC in Congress.