Pet Food Recall: History Suggests That Overreaction Is Perhaps Most Dangerous

When consumer product recalls happen, politicians sometimes overreach in response.

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It seems like every few months a new recall scare sweeps the country. Well, that's what's been going on today, as at least six people seem to have died from salmonella in peanut butter snack foods, and pet food seems to have been infected as well, with PetSmart Grreat Choice Dog Biscuits being recalled.

The timing is interesting because I've been following the fallout from a different consumer product scare, and the controversy surrounding it is about to hit a major milestone.

Remember a couple years ago when lead poisoning in toys from China was the big story? Well, Congress responded to that whole debacle by passing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to issue new regulations on children's products. But like all too many laws passed in the wake of media panics, there is evidence that the CPSIA may have overreached.

The regulation in question requires that children's consumer products such as clothes and toys must be tested by a third-party to ensure that lead levels are below 600 parts per million. The deadline for this requirement is February 10, 2009.  It applies to products regardless of where they are manufactured

Many manufacturers of children's products are saying that this rule is ludicrously onerous. The concern over that deadline is so high that some small-businesspeople have dubbed February 10 "National Bankrupty Day," saying that the requirement will run thousands of small manufacturers out of business. A Publisher's Weekly article says that the cost of testing can run up to $1,500 per item.

It's understandable that politicians should try to do whatever it takes to prevent deaths from consumer products, especially following major recall scares. But does this February 10 requirement really strike the right balance between protecting consumers and not placing undue burdens on business? A petition from the children's apparel industry says that many of the products that would have to be tested only contain "trace" amounts of lead that are not harmful.

It will be interesting to see if business groups can persuade the Consumer Product Safety Commission or Congress to change the regulation before the deadline--and what will happen if they don't. John Tozzi of BusinessWeek has been following this issue closely at the New Entrepreneur blog, check over there for much more.

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