E.U. Rep Seeks Tougher Safety Laws

Pointing to this summer’s toy recalls, commissioner critiques lax U.S. regulations

The commissioner for consumer protection in the European Union (E.U.) criticized the U.S. organization responsible for product safety and urged the two bodies to work together to enforce higher standards, in a speech Tuesday at the Center for European Studies (CES).

“In the area of the governance of product safety, the US might stand to benefit from a closer study of what has been done in Europe over the years,” commissioner Meglena Kuneva said in her talk, titled “Consumer Protection as a Challenge and Opportunity for the Transatlantic Agenda.”

The speech was part of a trip by the commissioner to discuss “the current situation regarding the safety of consumer goods including toys produced in China,” Kuneva said. She will also meet with White House officials and representatives of the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC).

This past summer, three major toy recalls took place as a result of excessive amounts of lead paint and parts: two Mattel recalls of 1.5 million and 9.3 million toys—including Big Bird, Dora the Explorer, and Dora’s cousin, Diego, figures—and an RC2 recall of 1.5 million toys from the Thomas and Friends line.

In the past few years, the E.U. has toughened its regulation of companies. Last month, the members of the European parliament proposed to require more labels explaining where goods had been produced. In 2003, it outlawed the use of lead, mercury, and other metals in electronic products.

E. Marla Felcher, an adjunct lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government consumer safety expert who attended the talk, said she thought the “fundamental problem” was that since the 1970s, American toy makers have been able to choose when to disclose problems with their products.

“What has changed in the last 6 years is that we’ve had weak regulation and the regulators who are supposed to be keeping the toy makers from putting the dangerous products on shelves have been asleep,” Felcher added.

Kuneva said that while Europe has benefitted from the U.S. idea of “consumer advocacy,” the two needed to work together to enforce product safety standards.

“One of the areas in which I am keen to make progress concerns the exchange of information between the U.S. and the E.U. when faulty or dangerous products are discovered,” she said in her speech.

She advocated the adoption of a communications program based on the RAPEX system, a rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products in place in Europe.

Karl Kaiser, one of the co-chairs of the Transatlantic Relation Seminar, a part of the Weatherhead Center, praised the ability of the E.U. to rapidly alert consumers.

“In terms of alerting public and public institutions on matters of public protect like the toy businesses, there are European examples where the commission intervened,” he said, pointing to the E.U.’s effort to decrease mobile phone roaming charges by increasing competition and transparency.

Felcher said that the efforts towards product safety don’t have to come at the expense of industry.

“I feel hopeful that there are people in the world who are taking this [consumer protection] seriously,” she said.