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A Compliance Review: the ICPHSO 2019 Conference

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ICPHSO is the largest product safety conference in the US

I recently attended the conference in Washington, DC, which is well known for having attendees from throughout industry, the product safety industry, government agencies such as the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission), and consultants like myself.

The CPSC is, in my opinion, continuing enforcement at the rate they typically do during Democratic presidential administrations. During my career, I generally have seen a slowdown on enforcement during Republican administrations, but I do not see that happening now.  

Some of the new tools the CPSC has created (SaferProducts.gov, Facebook and Twitter outreach) seems to be a driver here, with media-savvy consumers driving the action.

It’s much easier today for a consumer to report an injury or concern compared to 5 or 10 years ago- and the consumer seems more inclined to do so in the moment when they see a safety issue, with photos documenting product failures and injuries.

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The Growth of Fast Track Recalls

The annual number of recalls is the highest ever, partly because so many companies or brands opt for “FastTrack” recalls, presumably to get it over with quickly and reduce their social media footprint, rather than following the traditional type of recall (having the CPSC investigate the situation through a Section 15 filing, and making a decision on if a recall is necessary).

I thought it was interesting that the CPSC said that it would NOT have made many of the companies do a recall if it were up to them, so the driver for FastTrack recalls appears to be minimizing litigation and customer complaints by just quickly removing suspect product from the marketplace.  

The CPSC said of all the Section 15 reports filed with them, only 16% lead to recalls, with the balance leading to Corrective Action Plans negotiated with the seller or retailer.

So I would encourage clients to pause before rushing to a “FastTrack” recall solution, unless their brand name is at great risk through social media.

There is a growth in the “recalls” industry with three different service providers at the conference offering services to handle a recall for a company, since the burden of documentation, physical acquisition and subsequent destruction of returned products and compliance can be overwhelming for a lot of companies.

I was hearing people talk about their company’s struggle with the cost of compliance for low-end items, and how in response, brands are minimizing the colors they sell or enlarging assortments and price points on what items are even offered for sale.

International Harmonization of Regulations?

There were representatives from the governments of Canada, the EU, and Asian countries at the conference, and from listening to their panels, we are no closer to harmonization of standards between countries, particularly for Toy and Medical Device standards, largely because different regions simply have different ways of evaluating hazards.

For example, the EU tends to be prevention focused on concerns within their 28 member states, and the US is more focused on specific hazards, based on past injury data.

And the gap may be widening, since the CPSC is currently in process of revising age grade guidelines that would not come into effect until next year.

There was a lot of discussion about Brexit, and wonder about if the UK would continue to use EU standards.  Most UK attendees seemed to think the situation was too in-flux at present to predict which way things would go, but they reminded the audience that the UK would still be trading in a global marketplace and would have to meet EU standards for products they sell on the continent.  The EU will still be one of their biggest trading partners.

Current Hot Button Items for Regulators

Hot buttons are any children’s items (toys, jewelry, classroom products, children’s daily use products, durable baby goods), with more unannounced inspections in warehouses, particularly if items at the border did not appear to have their Juvenile Tracking labels in place.

CPSC investigators expect a seller or retailer to have a “Recall Action Plan” already in place if they do an unannounced inspection, so they can see what a company’s plan is for “stop sale” and “recovery” of defective product and details of how the customer would be refunded or product replaced.  The CPSC will assign inspectors throughout a supply chain to track down product in transit, in warehouses and outbound to customers.

I heard a lot of discussion also about Medical Devices being a focus for the CPSC, who works jointly with the FDA when there is are safety-related concerns for the broadly defined medical products.

Given that a lot of clients I have worked with have no idea their item is classified as a medical device, I think it will remain important to continue to check the FDA Classifications database when new products are under consideration.

Upcoming Challenges

The Internet of Things was a big theme; covering all sorts of Wi-Fi enabled consumer goods and the safety and security risks they may pose.  There has not been time to create a lot of compliance legislation or safety testing parameters for these items, so the Federal Agencies are working with some brands to understand these product types.  

The US Federal agencies work together in the absence of existing policies to try to establish a framework for compliance. They do NOT want to create legislation before products enter the marketplace, which I thought was interesting.   They stressed they work together, so on one product in this category, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) and the CPSC could all be working together to determine if there are safety issues.

Are you facing compliance challenges on your products? Concerned about potential customer safety risk and potential litigation? Let’s talk!

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About the Author
I know how Amazon investigates safety and compliance concerns because I wrote some of their internal investigation procedures. I spent four years at Amazon building out compliance requirements and training their associates. Before that, I spent twenty years helping Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Costco, Eddie Bauer and other large retailers deal with quality, safety and compliance issues on a wide range of products, from hardlines to softlines and food to supplements.

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