Sunday, November 14, 2010

If it Quacks Like a Duck...defining "children's product" in the age of recalls

Ask me to define “children’s product” and I’ll invite you to walk across the floor of my den. Whatever you step on—puzzle pieces, balls, purple hippopotamuses that slide down ramps, books with a bit of crusted-over oatmeal or red magic marker scribbled on the covers —these belong to the youngest inhabitants of my house.

The law, however, demands more specifics. So, last month the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued its final interpretative rule on what exactly a children’s product is. And, this definition is important because the Consumer Product Safely Improvement Act of 2008, which holds kids’ products to tougher standards for lead, third party testing, and tracking, depend on it.

Why does this matter?

Well, it doesn’t speak to all of the problems we parents have faced in this era of the 24/7 recall. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has no jurisdiction over food, for example. Baby formula with beetle larvae, chicken nuggets with blue plastic, apple juice with lead, and peanut butter with salmonella are still under the watch of the FDA. And, this definition doesn’t necessarily mean the cribs, strollers, tricycles, high chairs, baby slings and car seats recalled over the past year for dangerous or deadly design flaws will never be subject to a recall again. But, when it comes to your teething toddler chomping on the red embellishment on the Rex the Dinosaur book found to contain high levels of lead, well, this might be progress.

In fact, the recent statement by the CPSC not only reins in some of the problems we’ve seen in the children’s product industry—especially regarding lead—but it also appears to address some of the complexities that have made the definition and its interpretation so belated.

According to the Commission, a children’s product is defined as:

“...a consumer product designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger.”

You have not entered a Dilbert cartoon, that definition is remarkably simple.

But, the world is not. How, for example would you classify a model train, one that is expensive, fragile, and something the industry says is primarily used  by men in their fifties?

Or, what about the stuffed animal packaged in cellophane next to a scented candle?

A humidifier in the shape of a pig? Or penguin or cow?

Or, as mentioned in the September 28 New York Times story, the paper clip in a science kit for kids?

The Commission says four factors need to be considered when deciding if something is a children’s product or intended for the rest of the population as a general use item. And, the Commission’s standards, unlike mine, have little to do with how often an object is put back neatly on the shelf.

--A statement by the manufacturer about the intended use of the product including a label on such product if such a statement is reasonable.

--Whether the product is represented in its packaging, display, promotion or advertising as appropriate for use by children 12 years of age or younger.

--Whether the product is commonly recognized by consumers as being intended for use by a child 12 years of age or younger.

--The Age Determination Guidelines issued by the Commission in 2002.

There are other considerations within each of these categories, and many items will be classified on a case by case basis, making the final interpretative rule and comments long but fascinating. They give us a glimpse into just how complex the issue of children’s product safety is.

So, grab your reading glasses and a lawyer and let’s look at some of the fine print:

That model train? The Commission says:

We agree that certain model railroads and trains are not children’s products given the large number of adult model railroad hobbyists, the costs involved, and the level of sophistication required to operate them.”

They are deemed “collectible” items, and general use. They are not children’s products.

The stuffed animal with the candle?

“...packaging and selling a stuffed animal with a candle would not preclude a determination that the stuffed animal is a children’s product since stuffed animals are commonly recognized as begin primarily for children....we will not assume that all products in a copackaged product are general use products if the copackaged product contain toys or other articles that are appealing to and more likely to be used by children.”

That humidifier?

A home furnishing product that is embellished or decorated in a manner that is appealing to children 12 years of age or younger and is marketed to be placed in the rooms of such children could be considered a children’s product.” But, this would be considered in context of the other criteria. (How the product is marketed and advertised and manufacturer’s statement of intended use.)

The paper clip in a science kit for kids?

We agree...that many math and science kits that are sent to schools for the purpose of teaching these subjects contain materials, such as rubber bands, staples, paper clips, and other items that can be found in any hardware or grocery store. In determining whether these assembled products should now be considered children’s products because of their new use, packaging and marketing to schools, we consider the four specified statuary factors together as a whole. ...However if the product is packaged in such a manner that either expressly states or implies with graphics, themes, labeling or instructions that the product is designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger then it may be considered a children’s product if the required consideration of all four statutory factors supports that determination.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently launched a Social Media initiative hoping to bring recall alerts to parents where they might more easily find them. They’ve got a Twitter account, a blog, and widget for blogs that lists the latest, and apparently inevitable, recalls.

Over the past year,  I’ve written about the historic recall of children’s over- the-counter medication, the cadmium and lead in everything from apple juice to children’s books and jewelry, and the design flaws in nearly every category of item I have in my house designed for kids. The problem reminds me of a children’s product I had when I was a kid that was complex and maddening at times—the Rubik’s Cube. Everything in this dilemma is connected.

We have a scope of recalls that’s all encompassing; a collective parent reaction that’s rife with contradictions (whatever outrage we feel is subdued by the desire to not only protect our kids from the hazardous products but from the worry that everything in their life is a hazardous product); a government reaction that’s slow, imperfect, but moving in the right direction; and a manufacturing system that’s so global it’s fragmented. (Those Shrek glasses with cadmium were made by a French company with a plant in the US that may have gotten paint pigment from...)

The solution, in my mind, might be driven by a combination of changes in behavior and in the market place. We’ve seen a huge increase in federal trade mark registrations containing the words “eco” and “green” over the past few years, proving how consumer desire and perception moves trends.

I challenge any company that makes a children’s product to live up to a new label: we make and test this product as if our own kids’ lives and safety were at stake.

I know a lot of parents who would spend more, to have less, if they had some assurance that the things we were bringing into their homes for their kids to play and interact with were not coated with lead, cadmium, or poorly designed, or as the group Toxic Toys R Us warns against, coated with PVC.

I don’t think we need to spend a few years and haggle over the definition of  “good” to understand what it means.


Anonymous said...

Heard on CNN HLN this morning... some reusable shopping bags were found to contain high levels of lead....

Tim Morrissey said...

"I challenge any company that makes a children’s product to live up to a new label: we make and test this product as if our own kids’ lives and safety were at stake."

Well-said, Sarah. Don't think you'll have any takers, though such a promise from a manufacturer would certainly help guide us in our purchases of children's products.

Another very thought-provoking post.