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Consumers to Get More Protections

It would be understandable if American consumers are feeling vulnerable, given the consumer-protection news headlines in recent years: Recalls of millions of baby cribs and Toyotas. Food-borne contamination outbreaks in eggs, peanut butter and spinach, among other food categories. Then there are concerns over the tracking of our every move on the Internet.

It's no surprise, then, that consumer protection -- keeping people, and especially children, safe -- will be a hot topic in 2011. The new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection for example, will address such financial topics as credit cards and mortgages in 2011.

For industry, many of the changes mean more regulation, and potentially more hassle and expense to comply with new rules.

Here are three of the most important consumer-protection developments:

Dangerous products

By March, a dangerous-products database will be made available online by the Consumer Product Safety Commission at SaferProducts.gov.

Why is this a big deal? Currently, consumers have no centralized place to easily research products that might be harmful, whether they own the items now or are thinking of buying them.

"It's so necessary because consumers don't have access to the information they need to make decisions about consumer products," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America. "Right now, there's no resource that exists like this for consumers. It's only after there have been injuries and deaths that a consumer finds out."

Ideally, a trip to SaferProducts.gov would become as common as comparing product prices online. "I think it will become part of a consumer's buying process," she said.

The searchable site will contain reports of harmful or potentially harmful products received from consumers, government agencies, health care professionals and others. It will allow consumers to research potentially dangerous products before they are recalled -- before someone may get injured or dies. It also will allow an easy way for consumers to file reports online.

Companies that make the products will have the opportunity to comment on those reports. Most reports will be available online within 15 days of being filed, the CPSC has said.

Consumers filing reports will have to provide contact information, but their personal data will not be published online. The online database will include only new reports, not reports from previous years. The same information is available now but under a slow and cumbersome process through the Freedom of Information Act.

The dangerous-products database is years in coming. It was originally required in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which was implemented after a rash of injuries to children caused by products. President George W. Bush signed it into law in August 2008.

Tip: Until the database goes live in March, get information about product recalls by signing up for e-mail alerts at cpsc.gov. For a broader range of recalls and safety alerts specifically aimed at child safety, see the new Consumer Reports microsite clickcheckandprotect.org, launched in December.

Among other product-safety developments in 2011: New requirements for lead testing of many children's products are due to begin in February. Certification and third-party testing for lead will be required for children's products manufactured after Feb. 10.

Meanwhile drop-side baby cribs, which have been blamed for the deaths of dozens of infants over the past decade, will be outlawed as part of new regulations on cribs to take effect in June. And it will be illegal to sell most used cribs because few second-hand cribs will meet the tougher standards. Since 2007, more than 11 million cribs have been recalled. New regulations on baby cribs have been called the toughest in the world.

Food safety

The Food Safety Modernization Act -- the first major food-regulation overhaul in more than 70 years -- had bipartisan support in Congress but was tripped up late in 2010 because of a procedural goof with the legislation. After nearly being left for dead, the bill was suddenly resurrected and passed on Dec. 21.

The new law takes a proactive approach to food safety by trying to prevent dangerous contaminations instead of reacting only when people get sick or die. Most consumers might be shocked to learn the Food and Drug Administration rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.

Each year, 76 million Americans are sickened, 325,000 hospitalized, and 5,000 die from eating contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The new law will put in place many safeguards Americans thought they already had, said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for food safety issues at Consumers Union. For example, the FDA will have power to initiate a recall. Under the old law, the FDA had to coax companies to recall contaminated foods, and occasionally they refused.

The law, whose requirements will be phased in during 2011 and beyond, places stricter standards on imported food and requires larger producers to follow tougher rules for keeping food safe. Farmers and food processors would have to tell the FDA how they are working to keep their food safe at different stages of production.

"It's really a fundamental shift in how the FDA deals with it -- it's more proactive and preventative than reactive," said Chris Waldrop, director of Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute. "This bill will allow the FDA to prevent it from happening in the first place."

A shortcoming: The law deals with only FDA regulation of food, not the Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat and poultry, which are big sources of food-borne illnesses. Similar legislation for meat and poultry is unlikely to pass in 2011, Waldrop said.

Another food-related development in 2011 will be implementing a new law on child nutrition in schools. Among other things, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 aims to get rid of junk food in school cafeterias and vending machines. The measure, which became law in December, includes provisions to encourage use of produce grown in local farms and school gardens in school meals. It also increases the number of needy children eligible for subsidized meals at schools.

Online privacy

As you surf the Internet, Web sites track your activity and serve up information about you to advertising networks. That's why you might see advertising related to a search you recently completed, for example. You might find that helpful -- or creepy and invasive.

The online marketing industry is attempting to regulate itself over privacy concerns related to online tracking. But government and consumer advocates are frustrated with industry's slow pace.

So the Federal Trade Commission in December issued a report advocating safeguards, including a "do not track" mechanism that would give consumers the option of keeping their Web surfing private from companies who would track their moves online. It might be a function of Web browsers that would send notice to Web site trackers, essentially saying, "Leave me alone." The Commerce Department and a committee in the House of Representatives were also looking at the issue in December, and public comments on the FTC report are due Jan. 31. So, it's an issue likely to see action in 2011, privacy activists say.

In fact, after the FTC report was released, developers of the most popular browser, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, said the next version of the browser, IE 9, will include a do-not-track option. Called "tracking protection," it would allow users to selectively block tracking by subscribing to do-not-track lists. IE 9 is due to be released early in 2011. The next version of Mozilla's browser, Firefox 4, reportedly will also have an antitracking function.

"I think it's great Microsoft has taken a step forward from the pack and said, 'Here's what we're going to do,' " said Susan Grant, CFA director of consumer protection. "At least the dialogue is starting in earnest now to find better solutions for consumers and not just rely on these ineffective self-regulatory programs of industry."

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