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Safe Gift-Giving this Holiday Season

Posted on November 25, 2014
With the holidays just around the corner, you may be thinking about whether the toys and gifts on the shelves are safe for your families and friends. Considering the wide range of products available for sale, we wanted to share some of our findings on consumer product safety.

Many Federal Agencies Play Roles in Oversight

Our recent report on consumer product safety found fragmented oversight of the thousands of types of products on the market. Eight agencies have direct oversight over consumer products, and at least 12 others—such as public health and law enforcement agencies—play support roles. The graphic below shows some of the types of products that have multiple agencies involved in oversight. safety1

(The above graphic from GAO-15-52 shows examples of consumer products regulated by more than one agency. To access interactive features of the graphic, download the PDF version of the report, and go to page 16.)

Having so many agencies involved can lead to a sometimes inefficient or ineffective oversight system. In some cases, different agencies regulate different components of the same product. For example, at least 3 agencies are responsible for overseeing toy laser guns:
  1. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) sets safety standards and testing requirements for children’s products, including toys;
  2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology regulates the markings of toy and imitation firearms to distinguish them from real firearms; and
  3. The Food and Drug Administration regulates products that emit radiation, including laser products, by ensuring manufacturers comply with applicable safety performance standards and certification requirements.
In other cases, different agencies regulate different uses of the same product. For example, at least 2 agencies are responsible for hand-held infant carriers, depending on their use:
  1. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulates these carriers when used as car seats; and
  2. CPSC regulates them when used outside of motor vehicles.
Without a more formal coordination mechanism, some potential safety hazards may go unregulated. To learn more, listen to our podcast:
Federal Oversight of Consumer Product Safety

Taking Action on Hazardous Products

We also examined how quickly CPSC takes action once it identifies a safety hazard. CPSC generally regulates consumer products after they enter the market, and the growth of global and interconnected supply chains, as well as the sheer number and diversity of goods entering U.S. ports, presents CPSC with challenges. Some of the options we identified to improve CPSC’s timeliness include:
  • premarket approvals for certain products like cribs, and other preventive approaches to regulating consumer products;
  • allowing CPSC to detain products at the ports, and other enhancements to its authorities to address unsafe imports;
  • better data for identifying injuries or death from products, such as more recent death certificate data, as CPSC’s current sources can be more than 2 years old; and
  • expedited rulemaking authority for setting and promulgating product safety standards.

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