Consumer Safety (April 2010)

Goal: A food system the public can trust

As legislation to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) food safety authorities awaits consideration by the U.S. Senate, we are reminded there is no more fundamental function of government than protecting the public health, and no mission more important to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) than protecting Americans from foodborne illness.  The bottom line is that every parent in America should feel comfortable that the meal they place on the kitchen table will never hurt their child.  

More effective congressional oversight is the key to protecting consumers and ensuring their safety

The United States is faced from time to time with an event that sparks fear in the public mind and reminds us of the challenges of providing effective consumer protection.

The United States is faced from time to time with an event that sparks fear in the public mind and reminds us of the challenges of providing effective consumer protection. Whether it was Tylenol in the 1980s or Ford-Firestone a decade ago, these events spotlight the importance of providing effective and consistent oversight of the products we use every day. It also serves as a warning of the danger when systems designed to ensure consumer safety fail.

Most recently, America was stunned by the massive recall of more than 8 million vehicles by the Toyota Motor Corporation. Over the past several months, congressional investigations have revealed the systemic failures on the part of Toyota and government regulators that allowed these safety defects to persist, and ultimately cost lives.

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An objective review of the facts involved in the Toyota recalls demonstrates that federal regulators’ attempts to balance cordial relationships with regulatory oversight bred a culture of negotiation rather than strict enforcement. Second, a breakdown in international communication and cooperation on auto safety allowed potential problems to go unnoticed.  Third, federal regulators struggled to adapt to a changing industry. And finally, Toyota appears to have taken advantage of regulatory inefficiency by withholding information about product defects from the public.

In sum, the federal government was asleep at the switch and the company was derelict in its duty to quickly and comprehensively address reported safety problems.

Herein lies the challenge of federal regulation and consumer safety.  It is important for federal regulators to work collaboratively with industries to address concerns, but when this cooperation reduces the will for enforcement, the consumers are placed at risk. Likewise, when regulators lack the flexibility to adapt to changes in technology, their ability to identify potential safety risks and take appropriate action is compromised.

As in the case of Toyota, a company with a commendable reputation for quality and affordability suffers — sometimes irreparably — when the public perceives concerns for their safety have been subordinated to the bottom line. Toyota has struggled to regain its reputation, and it could take years before the cloud of suspicion lifts from this great automaker. Clearly, all companies have a vested interest in an unassailable commitment to consumer safety. 

But because standards are required across the industry, it is the responsibility of federal regulators to make sure those standards are enforced impartially and consistently. Similarly, Congress has a responsibility to remain objective and fair when conducting oversight in a situation like Toyota, where failures on both sides facilitated the problem. 

It is our job to understand the facts and utilize this information to ensure regulators are capable of providing appropriate enforcement with the tools Congress provides. If regulators do not have the resources, Congress must supply them. If, however, regulators are not effectively using the resources they’ve been given, Congress must hold them accountable.

I have little doubt Toyota will make the investments and sacrifices necessary to regain their reputation for producing safe, high-quality automobiles. It is our responsibility to ensure we, as a nation, learn from these mistakes in an effort to mitigate them in the future.

Everyone must be involved in ensuring consumer safety.  Manufacturers must conduct thorough quality control tests and willingly disclose that data to government regulators.  Federal regulators must respond quickly and thoroughly to reports from consumers about possible risks associated with the products they buy. Both the industry and the regulatory agencies must work proactively to correct problems in a way that maintains a healthy, open and honest relationship that benefits consumers. 

Finally, Congress must remain vigilant to protect the safety of consumers by conducting thorough oversight and, when needed, shining the hot light of congressional scrutiny to remind everyone of their top priority – the safety of all products sold in American markets. 

Issa is the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.