Consumer advocates hope watchdog agencies get more bite

The Obama administration is expected to usher in a new era of protection.

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You'll be safer in 2009. At least that's the expectation of consumer watchdogs who believe the changing of the guard at the White House in a few weeks will mark the beginning of a new era in protecting people from stuff that can hurt you.

"It may not be a golden age," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington. "But it's definitely going to be an opportunity for consumer advocates to be heard for the first time in years and for there to be meaningful change."

He and other advocates expect extensive housecleaning primarily in two crucial agencies, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.

For years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has seemed like it's had an "out to lunch" sign on the door.

The agency is responsible for overseeing the safety of 15,000 product categories, including toys, cribs, power tools and kitchen appliances. It now has about 400 staffers, fewer than half the amount it had when the agency was established in 1973.

Moreover, the three-person commission has been without a chairman since July 2006.

That's when Hal Stratton, an appointee of President Bush, departed to take a job with a law firm that specializes in shooting down class-action lawsuits filed by consumers. In March 2007, Bush nominated Michael Baroody, a manufacturing industry lobbyist, to head the commission.

Baroody withdrew from consideration after lawmakers demanded copies of his severance agreement with the National Assn. of Manufacturers. Bush never nominated anyone else.

In August, after the recalls of millions of toys and other products, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was signed into law. It will significantly streamline and enhance the commission's operations, including new resources for disclosure of defective goods.

"A blueprint for success has been set in place for the commission," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America. "Now all we need is the leadership to act on it, and to restore the commission's funding and resources."

The whispering in Washington suggests that a front- runner for commission chair is Pam Gilbert, who served as executive director of the agency under President Clinton and has years of experience as a consumer advocate.

The FDA also appears to have a lot of renovation in its future after repeated instances of tainted foods and drugs turning up in the U.S. market. Most recently, the agency has drawn fire from public health advocates for seeking to reverse a long-standing policy on mercury-tainted seafood.

Since 2004, the FDA has cautioned women of childbearing age, nursing mothers and young children to limit seafood consumption. Now the agency says women and kids should help themselves to fish, even though the Environmental Protection Agency says it has "serious concerns" about that advice.

The FDA also has taken hits on melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizer. Melamine has been linked to the deaths of at least six babies in China and the sickening of nearly 300,000 other children. Melamine apparently was added to Chinese dairy products to make them seem more protein-rich.

After traces of the chemical were found in infant formula produced in the United States, the FDA ruled last month that a little melamine was OK, reversing an earlier position that any melamine in formula may be unsafe.

This month, the FDA issued a report hailing its "significant progress" in keeping consumers safe.

Patty Lovera, assistant director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said the report showed how out of touch the FDA had become.

"This hasn't been a good year for the FDA by any stretch," she said. "They're completely outgunned, especially on imports, and don't show any expectation of getting better."

She said the first step for the administration of President-elect Barack Obama would be to appoint an agency head who understood the need for reorganization, and who would be active in boosting the FDA's budget.

The Bush administration had sought only a 5.7% increase in funding to $2.4 billion for 2009. The total rose to $2.7 billion only after Democratic lawmakers questioned the agency's ability to safeguard the food supply.

Possible candidates for FDA commissioner include Joshua Sharfstein, head of the Baltimore Health Department, and Steven Nissen, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

The biggest challenge for both the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the FDA will be working with foreign governments -- especially China -- in gaining access to overseas facilities that may not meet U.S. safety standards.

Beyond that, new safeguards will have to be put in place so that goods are tested and inspected before reaching store shelves, rather than our current system of doing damage control after a problem is detected.

This won't be cheap, especially at a time when we'll be spending some serious coin fixing the economy and winding down the war in Iraq. But for a president who based his election campaign on looking out for common folk, few issues are as important as consumer protection.

"Nothing will happen overnight," said Public Interest Research Group's Mierzwinski. "We still have to climb out of a deep hole, and industry groups will continue pushing their agendas. But people should be optimistic."

That notion alone is reason for a happy new year.

David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

latimes.com /lazarus/safety

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Wesley Case is a south Jersey native and a Delaware grad. Since October 2008, I've worked at b, reporting music stories that focus on Baltimore's burgeoning scene and the music outside the city that matters to you. More ...
Jordan Bartel is assistant editor at b and lives in Mount Vernon. More ...

Luke Broadwater covers Baltimore politics for The Sun. More...

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