Federal Government Launches New Consumer Complaint Database

Saferproducts.gov will include safety information on a wide range of products.

March 11, 2011— -- Nicki Johns' son was 8 months old when he died in a drop side crib accident.

Nearly five years later, his death continues to haunt Johns, 30, who spent months researching cribs for her premature newborn.

"If I had seen anywhere there had been a problem, I would have crossed the name off the list," the Roseville, Calif., resident told ABC News. "It only takes a second for something tragic to happen, and you spend forever thinking, what could I have done differently?"

All drop side cribs were recalled last year, but not after a series of tragic accidents.

"Word couldn't get out there because we couldn't let people know, there was no way for us to tell them what happened," Johns said.

Now the federal government is hoping to lessen accidents like that of the Johns by providing a database with safety information on a range of consumer products, including cribs, toys and strollers.

Saferproducts.gov, the brainchild of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, launches today, and it's designed to help consumers get more information about products large and small.

The CPSC already collects reports of defective products from a wide range of sources, including consumers, health care providers, death certificates and media accounts, but most of that information is private.

The database was created as part of a consumer product safety law passed by Congress in 2008, and marks the first time the federal government will make public thousands of complaints it receives each year about the safety of various products.

The database will include only information about defects that result in injury or death, not complaints about reliability or quality, nor about food items, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, tobacco, automobiles and tires.

When a consumer files a complaint, the CPSC has five days to notify the manufacturer, which in turn has 10 days to respond to the complaint. The manufacturer can challenge the complaint as false, argue that it will give away a trade secret or submit a response.

Complaints about a product will be posted to the database within 15 days. If a manufacturer provides a response, it will be published alongside the complaint. If a manufacturer says that a complaint is false or that to answer it would disclose confidential business information, the CPSC will decide whether to withhold or publish the complaint.

Those filing a complaint must identify themselves, but that information won't be published and will be disclosed to the manufacturer only with the consumer's permission.

In 2009, the CPSC received 16,000 complaints.

Consumer advocates say the database is "a resource that will revolutionize the way people make buying decisions" and will serve as an early-warning system for dangerous products on the market.

But it's also been met with criticism.

Major manufacturing and industry groups fear the database will be filled with fictitious slams against their brands, since it allows complaints from a wide range of people, even from those with no direct knowledge of the product; the database could be an avenue for competitors or others with political motives to post inaccurate claims; the agency could not investigate most of the complaints and under the guise of being posted to a government-approved database, fictitious claims could be given credibility; and, finally, the database could present a new burden in an already difficult economic environment.

"We're not against the database. We just want it to actually be useful to consumers and to not falsely malign companies' brands or products," Rosario Palmieri, National Association of Manufacturers vice president of regulatory policy, told ABC News. "And we think, unfortunately, that although Congress spent a lot of time working on this and trying to figure out who should file, how this should be done, how we should protect against inaccuracies … we think the commission didn't follow Congress' intent when they issued their rule on how this was all going to be implemented.

The group asked CPSC to delay the launch, but that request was denied.

CPSC officials said they have built in safeguards to prevent such abuse and have carefully balanced the interests of consumers and manufacturers.

"Manufacturers are concerned, but we want to allay their fears in that the 1,500 reports that we received of harm during our trial launch we only had four where the manufacturers told us they were inaccurate. So we are the only database in the federal system that allows manufacturers to have a separate portal," CPSC chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum told ABC News. "So we will be working with manufacturers very closely and we want to allay their fears that we will be working with them and get the information to them in a very timely manner."

But the idea has still met with political resistance. Republican lawmakers charge the database is a waste of taxpayer money and could damage businesses. House leaders have stripped away funding for the website through a continuing resolution.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., has led the efforts to block the funding and says that CPSC is approaching the subject in a wrong way.

"This is amassed to little more than a government-sponsored blog," Pompeo said last week. "My primary concern is that we have a government-sponsored site that will be posting information that is not accurate. ... This will also cause business to spend a whole lot of money to deal with the outcropping of their item posting on the database."

But proponents of the database say it will prevent tragic accidents like the one that killed Nicki Johns' 8-month-old son.

If the database is shuttered, "it would have repercussions that could be a matter of life and death. We could have situations, like faulty cribs, that were never reported quick enough to save other children," Tenenbaum said. "There are many people who lost their children because of drop side cribs who said had we only known these drop side cribs were a problem, our child would be here today."