Recall Readiness 101: What if you just found out that you need to recall 12,500 tumblers?

Consider this scenario:  For the past five years, your distributorship has been running a high volume online store for Appleton Digital, a global media firm that happens to be your largest client.   Last month, your office received an urgent message from Appleton that a popular item you import directly—a glass tea tumbler you’ve had in the program for three years—shattered when a user filled it with boiling water.  Glass shards were reportedly sent in all directions and the person suffered incisions and lacerations.  Your client is still following up on the details but wants the tumbler out of the program immediately.  He says that he heard there might have been a few other complaints with this product in the past that Appleton never passed on to you.  You’re concerned because in addition to the 2,500 tumblers you’ve sold through Appleton’s portal, you’ve also sold another 10,000 units to other customers as well.

After investigating, you discover that under certain circumstances the tumbler can indeed shatter unexpectedly.  In addition to filing a Section 15(b) report with the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC)—a federal requirement when you learn that one of your items may present a substantial product hazard or unreasonable risk of serious injury—you send samples of the glass tumblers to a third party lab.   Their results indicate a manufacturing flaw—a weakness in the glass—and CPSC staff investigators come to the same conclusion.  The die is cast and within a few weeks you agree to initiate a voluntary product recall of all 12,500 tumblers that you sold.

Recalls are urgent, demanding and all-consuming of time and resources.  Within a tightly compressed timeframe, your team will need to complete a daunting list of complex and detail laden tasks.  In those tense first weeks you will need to make critical decisions at a frenetic pace.  Unless you’re recalling a rocket, none of it will be rocket science, but there is a lot to do and time will be of the essence.  Your company will be under intense pressure to design a comprehensive recall plan, get it approved by CPSC and implement the recall as soon as possible.  As CPSC tells it, the objectives of a recall are “to locate all defective product as quickly as possible, to remove defective products from the distribution chain and from the possession of consumers, and to communicate accurate and understanding information in a timely manner to the public about the product defect, the hazard and the corrective action.”  But accomplishing that and satisfying CPSC that your plan is aggressive enough to motivate consumers to act on the recall can be a challenge.  You will likely experience a nonstop whirlwind of conference calls, meetings and drafts as your team rushes to complete your recall agreement with CPSC, a reverse logistics plan, a joint press release, retail posters, a customer service script, FAQs for your websites, letters and notices to your distribution chain, collection and disposal procedures, launch plans, submission forms, a social media plan, and on and on.  How do you prepare for an urgent project like this?  What should a company do before any product hazard arises to be as well prepared as possible to implement a recall?

The answer can be boiled down to two words:  Prepare and practice.

First Steps

Prepare by learning the recall process, step by step.  CPSC publishes a Recall Handbook that lays out all the elements in plain English.  Study it carefully and plan for how you will handle each requirement.  Consider the information you would need to collect, evaluate and provide to CPSC.  Where is this information stored at your company?  What documents do you have? Who has access?  How easily could you accumulate everything you would need if you had an urgent need to do so?

Good Documentation Helps

If you don’t have a good system for storing all the quality, production and safety data related to your products, now would be a good time to consider one, before an urgent need arises.  It should consolidate access to all relevant production, quality, safety, sales and distribution documents for the products you manufacture, decorate, retail or distribute.  Typical items include sales orders, purchase orders, bills of material, technical files, test reports, risk assessments, inspection reports, customer complaints, return authorizations, warranty claims, corrective actions, and production issues.  The specific documents you will need may depend on your company’s role in the distribution chain – supplier or distributor, importer or retailer – but they are all similar in their purpose: to quickly understand how extensive the problem is, how many defective products you’ve distributed, where the defective products are, how you can identify them, why the problem occurred in the first place and so forth.

How efficient are your systems now?  Would you be able to easily identify which purchase orders or production runs involved the affected products?  Do the defective products have tracking labels, date codes, lot numbers or other distinguishing characteristics?  Could you identify the owners or recipients of these defective products?  Do you have shipping records for all the locations where you’ve shipped these products and production records for all the logos you’ve imprinted on the product?  These recordkeeping details might even be the key to negotiating the scope of the recall with the CPSC and limiting the recall to a smaller batch or lot.  CPSC will want you to be as specific as possible with each example of defective product and ideally have an image of each logoed version to help consumers identify whether the product they have is included in the recall.  You may even need to reach out to your clients to determine the specific dates and events at which the product was distributed to determine how you can reach that audience.

Who Will Manage?

Another consideration is your chain of command.  Who will be authorized to make decisions and approve agreements for your company?  Who will coordinate the recall and have overall management responsibility?  Which managers will be responsible for specific tasks?   Who will guide and advise these managers?  Who will be authorized to speak with customers, consumers and the media on your behalf?  What talking points will be used for those communications?  Will you use outside counsel to advise you in your communications and negotiations with CPSC regulators, in getting your recall plan written and approved, and in advising you throughout the recall?  If so—in my view, highly advisable—it is best to establish a relationship with an expert product safety attorney in advance so he or she understands your business and can respond to your situation immediately.  In the middle of a crisis is not the time to be vetting attorneys, comparing fees and waiting for law firms to conduct conflict checks.

Nothing is More Important than the Recall Agreement

One of the most critical milestones your team will need to accomplish is to successfully negotiate an agreement with CPSC staff over all the salient details of your recall:  How will consumers who have defective products be notified?   How soon and by what method?   Who distributed the product?  How will you notify those parties?  By when?  What will you offer to consumers who have defective products?  A replacement product?  A repair?   A refund?  Will the funds be escrowed?  How will you collect, account for and dispose of the defective products in coordination with CPSC?   All of this and more will be spelled out in your agreement with CPSC.  This agreement is the one item in particular where you would be well advised to work with a seasoned product safety attorney who has had many previous successes in negotiating these corrective action agreements with CPSC.  Its importance cannot be overstated.

By the time you actually announce the recall and put a well-designed plan into place, much of the heavy lifting will be done.  To be sure, there is still a great deal of work to do but it should largely be an operations and logistics issue at this point—work that your team is probably very good at already. Some companies choose to handle this “fulfillment” part of the recall with their own staff – collecting and disposing of the defective merchandise, processing refunds and claims forms, coordinating between all of the parties involved, reporting to CPSC – and some outsource the work to a recall management firm.  Either way, the important objective at this point is for your recall coordinator to make sure the trains run on time, that you do exactly what you told CPSC you would do, that every step is documented carefully and that you do it as quickly and expeditiously as possible.

What Went Wrong?  What Should You Do About It?

Once the crisis stage of the recall has passed, it is always prudent to conduct a post-mortem to determine what went wrong, who, if anyone, was at fault and what you should do better in the future to avoid similar defects.  Did you fail to test something thoroughly or fail to ask enough questions?  Did the manufacturer fail in some way or make a change without telling you?   Product safety experts have long advocated that the surest path to product safety is by designing defects out of products to begin with.   The more you understand about what went wrong with the defective product the better job you can do with future products.  The post-mortem is also the time to consider whether you may be able to recover some or all of your recall related costs.  Are you insured for any portion?  Do you have any indemnification agreements in place that may be applicable?  Should you consider litigation to recover your damages?  There are many such questions to ask at this point and you are wise to consider each one.

Product recalls can happen to any company of any size.  It doesn’t matter whether you are a supplier or distributor, whether you import directly or retail products that you buy from others.  Under the Consumer Products Safety Act, everyone who manufactures, distributes, or sells defective products can be held responsible. No company is immune no matter how expert its engineering or how vigilant its compliance.  If you need to be convinced, just type “BMW” or “Mercedes” and “Recall” into a Google search and see how many hits you get.  Do the same for the names Disney, McDonald’s, Fisher-Price, Lululemon, Nike, UnderArmour, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Schwinn, Cannondale – almost any respected brand you can think of – and you will discover recalls.  And so it could be with you.  But if you take steps in advance to prepare—even small steps—you can greatly diminish the pain and anguish a recall could cause your organization and you can reduce your costs significantly.  Keep in mind the two most important takeaways from this brief overview – prepare and practice – and they could make all the difference.

Recall Readiness Checklist

  • Plan For It.  Assume it will happen sooner or later.  Learn the recall process, step by step, and teach it to your key managers.  Go through CPSC’s Recall Handbook carefully and periodically review it with your management team.
  • Learn What The CPSC Requires.  Learn or review the Section 15(b) reporting requirements of the Consumer Products Safety Act.  Among other things, these well-establish consumer product safety rules require you to report to CPSC immediately whenever you learn of a substantial product hazard or a product that doesn’t meet a CPSC standard.  Late reporting can generate seven figure civil penalties.   While you’re at it, also learn about the Section 37 and Section 102 reports.  It’s all in CPSC’s Recall Handbook.
  • Centralize Incident Reporting.  To ensure you are aware of all incidents that could require a Section 15(b) report to CPSC, be sure to centralize the review of all customer complaints, product returns, defects, accidents, incidents and other leading indicators that may indicate a quality problem or a safety hazard.
  • Get The Product Back.  Whenever you receive a product-related complaint, claim or injury report, always ask for the product in question to be returned to you.  If the product is later deemed to be defective such that it leads to a recall, any batch, lot or tracking numbers on the product may help you limit the scope of the recall.
  • Distributor: You Report If Supplier Doesn’t.  What if you purchased the tumbler in this example through an industry supplier rather than importing it directly?   How would the scenario change?  When reporting the complaint and injury to the supplier you could request that the supplier immediately file the Section 15(b) report with CPSC.  If the supplier refuses or delays, you can file the Section 15(b) report as a “retailer or distributor report” and request that CPSC contact your supplier directly for more information.  Remember that under the Consumer Products Safety Act, everyone who manufactures, distributes, or sells defective products can be held responsible.
  • Notification Tools.  Study the material on CPSC’s website as examples of the posters, scripts, FAQs, social medial plans and other processes you’ll have to go through in a recall.
  • Get Documents In Order.  Review your systems for documenting and storing key product information you would need in a recall.  Be sure it is easily accessible.
  • Appoint Recall Coordinator.  Assign a manager to act as your recall coordinator.  Provide continuous training and stay abreast of best practices.
  • Line Up Outsider Experts.  Interview expert product safety lawyers about the role a lawyer would play in a real recall.  Establish a relationship in advance so you could move quickly in an actual recall.  Interview firms that provide recall management or consulting services to be aware of what’s available.  Speak to your insurance company about recall insurance.  Cover all the bases and decide what’s best for you based on your budget and risk tolerance.
  • Start At Product Development.  Review your product development and selection process to be sure you’re being as careful as you should in evaluating, testing and overseeing the production of the products you make or sell.   Perform a risk assessment for each product and consider what could go wrong.  Where applicable, enlist a third party lab to perform product integrity tests as well as use and abuse tests.
  • Put ID Marks On Your Products.  Mark your products whenever possible with lot, batch or tracking numbers that you can tie back to the production run.  If only a portion of your products have the defect these numbers may help you limit the scope of a future recall.
  • Use Mock Recalls For Training.  Periodically test your systems and management training by conducting a mock recall.

CPSC Recall Handbook:        www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/106141/8002.pdf

This article also appears in the September 2013 issue of PPAI’s PPB Magazine.

What the Promotional Products Industry Can Learn from Williams-Sonoma

Staying Silent Can Cost You

In the Fall of 2002, Ann Brown, head of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), proclaimed that San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma was “leading the way on recall effectiveness” as she honored the company with her prestigious Chairman’s Commendation.  “Williams-Sonoma has demonstrated their commitment to consumer safety, by ensuring that customers were properly notified of a dangerous recalled product.”  Unfortunately for this upscale retailer, Ms. Brown is no longer at the Commission and it is not 2002.  This May, in a stunning reversal of fortune, CPSC has smacked Williams-Sonoma with a whopping $987,500 civil penalty for failure to timely report a product defect. Draconian as it seems, this stunning and eye-popping penalty may soon seem modest.  Well-informed sources predict it is only a precursor of much larger penalties in the works.  The message of the 2013 Commission is clear: Follow the letter of the law or be prepared to pay an astronomical penalty and then be compelled to follow the law with a costly CPSC-imposed mandatory compliance program.

So what can distributors and suppliers in the promotional industry learn from this case that they can use to protect their businesses?

Williams-Sonoma ran afoul of the critical Section 15(b) reporting requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act.  Among other obligations, Section 15 requires manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers of consumer products to notify the Commission immediately whenever the company has information that one of its products contains a defect which could create a substantial hazard or creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.   Strategy #1: Assign a senior person in your company to learn the Section 15 reporting requirements.

Change a few details and the story of what happened to Williams-Sonoma could have happened to any company in our industry – promotional products suppliers who import product and distributors who sell it.  In this case, William-Sonoma did both.  In 2003 they began importing wooden hammock stands to sell through their Pottery Barn division.  From 2003–2008, Pottery Barn sold 30,000 units.  According to CPSC, when the hammock stand is used outdoors its metal brackets can trap moisture causing the wooden beams to rot over time behind the bracket and giving no outward sign until someone sits in the hammock and the beam breaks.   During this five-year span the company received 45 complaints of which 12 incidents required some medical attention.  The Commission claims that Williams-Sonoma knew by late 2006 – after it had received eight complaints – that the product had a defect which created a substantial product hazard, however Williams-Sonoma did not file a Section 15 report with CPSC until September 2008 – two years later!

If this case was typical, Williams-Sonoma most likely learned about the defective hammocks through a variety of customer interactions that may not have been passed on to one central repository.  Some customers might have placed warranty claims and only mentioned the bumps and bruises in passing.  Others might have come in to a store for a refund, written a letter, called an 800 number, complained via a Web contact form or even posted on CPSC’s new “Safer Products” site.  Whether a company is large or small, information – even bad news – can permanently reside in silos when the people receiving the information don’t appreciate its implication or aren’t aware of related incidents.  Without specific training and a robust initiative, employees in the field might receive a customer complaint—perhaps over the phone or in passing during an unrelated conversation—and dismiss it as insignificant, not their responsibility or not serious enough to report.   Teach your team that every product complaint is potentially significant.  Every complaint, claim, or incident report should be relayed to a central repository, logged and followed-up on thoroughly.  Be sure to have a trained individual call the consumer to discuss what happened and to make sure your incident report is accurate and that no details have been sugarcoated.  Ask for the product to be returned so you can see for yourself what went wrong and determine whether the issue constitutes a substantial product hazard.   Strategy #2: Educate employees to communicate every product related complaint to one person or department knowledgeable about Section 15 requirements, who has the authority to report to CPSC or to quickly raise the reporting issue to someone who does.  Investigate every incident thoroughly and get first-hand information about what happened whenever you can.  Ask for the product back to carefully evaluate what went wrong and whether further action is required. 

A common myth, and why some companies may not report, is the fear that Section 15 reports will automatically result in a costly “corrective action”, a term CPSC uses to refer to any remedial action taken by a firm, including recalls.  CPSC denies this myth in an FAQ on its website:  “Reporting a product to the Commission under section 15 of the CPSA does not mean that the Commission automatically will conclude that the product creates a substantial product hazard or that corrective action is necessary.”  Instead, CPSC contends that aside from helping the Commission to identify substantial product hazards that Congress established the Section 15 reporting requirements to encourage “widespread reporting…. to help identify risks that the Commission could address through voluntary or mandatory standards, or information and education.”   I posed this myth question to a prominent product safety attorney who regularly practices before the Commission.  He confirmed that many Section 15 reports result in no action and advised that companies should err on the side of “over-reporting.”   Indeed, the risks inherent in a Williams-Sonoma-sized civil penalty alone should inform any company’s consideration of whether or not to report.  Strategy #3: Err on the side of “over-reporting” when you learn of a product defect that could create a substantial hazard.  If the risk is not substantial, CPSC will not likely take action.  If the risk is substantial and you do not report, the potential civil penalties can be massive.  This Commission has already shown in the Williams-Sonoma and Kolcraft [1]matters that it will not hesitate to invoke stiff penalties for late reporting.

CPSC allows Section 15 reports to be filed through it’s SaferProducts.gov website, by mail, or by telephone, and can be submitted by the reporting company or its attorney.  The most important thing is to file the report timely, however it is always advisable when dealing with regulatory agencies to do so with the advice of an experienced attorney who specializes in that area of the law.  Reporting companies should be prepared with the information that CPSC staff will need to evaluate the product hazard and determine if further action is required.   The more organized and complete a company’s records are, the easier time it will have responding to Commission staff queries.  The initial questions are what you would expect: What is the product?  Who is the manufacturer or importer?  Where is the product sold?  What is the defect, injury or risk?   How many units have been sold?  How many complaints or incidents involving the product have been reported?  Were there any injuries reported?  If the investigation continues beyond an initial stage, the information requested by CPSC can get much more detailed.  Strategy #4: Keep complete and accurate records about the products you sell.  This should include such product related items as sales and purchasing records, test reports, history of complaints, warranty claims, returns, and any other relevant information you may have.  The information should be stored in a database and easily searchable by the individual you empower to evaluate product defects and make Section 15 reports.

It is very easy – actually tempting – to read about someone else’s misfortune and assume for one reason or another that it can’t happen to you.  But if you sell consumer products – and our entire industry does – it can happen to you and maybe easier than you think.  Product defects that that have the potential to cause injury can happen to any company that makes or sells products.  Consider this: Williams-Sonoma has a long history of managing recalls – so much so that CPSC recognized its outstanding systems a decade ago.  Yet even with a compliance staff, a sophisticated database tracking system and a history of managing recalls effectively, a serious product defect fell through the cracks and cost the company dearly.  Take the time to evaluate your company’s system for evaluating products, for logging and monitoring complaints, returns and claims, and for determining whether any product related issue has the potential to create a product hazard substantial enough to warrant a Section 15 report.  Strategy #5: Just as you would monitor any other Key Performance Indicator, establish KPIs for monitoring your systems for tracking product related issues to ensure that no potential product hazard falls through the cracks to later become an albatross for your company.


[1] In March 2013, two months before the Williams-Sonoma civil penalty, Kolcraft Enterprises Inc. of Chicago agreed to pay a $400,000 civil penalty for failure to timely report defects involving faulty latches on the sides of several of the play yard products it manufactured for Carter’s, Sesame Street and others.  In both the Kolcraft and Williams-Sonoma Settlement Agreements CPSC imposed mandatory compliance programs.

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of PPB Magazine

CPSC Press Release – Williams Sonoma Civil Penalty and Links to Commissioner Statements

Settlement Agreement Between CPSC and Williams-Sonoma

 

Ten Ways to Protect Your Clients and Build Your Business

When you consult with your customers about their promotions or inquire of your suppliers about their products, do you ask questions about product safety and compliance?  For your customer – Who will the products be given to? Where will they be distributed?  For your supplier – What third-party tests have been performed for these products?  If you’re not asking basic questions like these, you’re missing valuable opportunities to distinguish yourself from your competitors.  More importantly, you could be putting your customers, your distributorship, your suppliers and even the industry at risk.  Yet, putting yourself in a position where you are confident enough to ask the right questions that will protect everyone in the supply chain is a cinch for promotional products professionals.  Here’s a list of ten guidelines that that every responsible member of the industry should master.

Learn the basic product safety laws and regulations that affect the promotional products industry.  The main one is CPSIA, an acronym for the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.  It’s the federal law that regulates children’s products and toys.  If one of your clients has a promotion that involves young children, you must understand how CPSIA applies and what you must verify with your supplier to ensure compliance.  There are other federal laws to consider as well, such as those that apply to industry products that come into contact with food, like water bottles, tumblers, coolers and lunch bags.  Together with hand sanitizer, sunglasses, and first aid kits, these promotional items are governed by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations.  Certain states have regulations as well, such as California’s Proposition 65 and Illinois’ lead law.  There are industry resources to help you learn these basics – educational sessions at industry events and webinars through trade associations to name a few.  You don’t need to know all the technicalities of these laws but you do need to know enough to ask the right questions so you can make informed decisions.  A few hours of product safety training is a great start.

Know your products.  If you’re a supplier, you should know everything you can about each product in your line.  Importers and manufacturers should have technical drawings, a bill of materials (BOM) and performance requirements for each of their products.  These documents comprise the basis of quality control and compliance testing.  Suppliers should perform risk analyses and use and abuse testing when evaluating new products.  Are the products suitable for children?  What ages?  Distributors should ask related questions when selecting products from suppliers.  Has the product been tested by a third-party lab?  Which tests have been conducted?  Does it comply with each state’s safety laws?  What age is it designed for?  Is it a child’s toy?  The more we know about the products we sell the better job we do to protect our clients.

Know your suppliers.  How much do you really know about each of your suppliers?  You can learn a lot from a catalog and website but marketing materials don’t tell you the extent of what goes on behind the scenes.  Does the supplier have a knowledgeable head of compliance?  How does the supplier evaluate new products and vet its factories?  What third-party tests does the supplier commission, how often and for which products?  Does the supplier have an XRF instrument to test products in-house?  What about ink testing?  Are some or all of the supplier’s products compliant as children’s products?  What is the supplier’s policy on Prop 65 compliance?  How will you be indemnified?  These are only examples of the kinds of questions you should be asking each of your suppliers in addition to visiting their headquarters and seeing their operations first hand.

Know your clients.  Each of your clients is unique.  Learn about their differences so you can meet their specific requirements and expectations.  Some companies have testing requirements that exceed applicable regulations.  Others have written social accountability policies for any factory producing a product with their logo.  Companies differ in risk tolerance and rely on you to guide them.  Case in point:  Federal law permits general use products to be sold for use by young children even if the products are not tested, not certified, and even if they contain more lead than allowed for children’s products.  But how would your client feel about handing out a product to children that doesn’t meet children’s product standards?  The more you know about each client’s policies and expectations, the better job you can do to meet their individual needs.

Know the intended audience. When you speak to a client about a promotion, always ask about the target audience – who the products are intended for – and the U.S. states where the products will be distributed.  If the target audience includes children, this should influence your product selection.  Children’s products and toys must meet stringent lead and phthalate requirements, be certified by a third-party lab and carry permanent tracking labels.  Certain U.S. states have additional requirements.  Illinois, for example, has a lead law that exceeds the federal standard.  A best practice for distributors is to highlight on purchase orders to suppliers whether the products are for children and where the products will be distributed.  This will help your supplier verify that your products will be compliant with all applicable regulations.

Know the risks.  Risk is inherent in all that we do whether we are trying a restaurant for the first time, taking advantage of a bargain price, or selecting products blindly from a catalog.  In the promotional products industry, there are product safety risks (will the product hurt anyone), regulatory compliance risks (does the product comply with applicable laws and safety standards), and social accountability risks (could the manufacturing of the product embarrass your client), among others.  No matter what you do, no matter how careful you are, no one can eliminate risk entirely.  Even the most prestigious brands have product failures, recalls and production gaffes.  But you can mitigate risk to a great degree by being aware of risks and making appropriate product and supplier decisions.  Your clients put their most valuable asset in your care—their name and logo—­when they entrust you to select the products that will bear that name.  Treat this responsibility with the care and diligence it deserves.  Brand protection is one of your most sacred responsibilities.

Educate the team.  For most distributors and suppliers, servicing major customers requires a well-organized team effort.  Unless everyone on the team is on the same page, it isn’t likely that you will deliver consistent service, let alone excel.  The same principal applies to product safety and compliance.  The quality of your safety and compliance initiatives will only be as strong as the weakest link.  Take the time to educate everyone on your team in the basics of responsible sourcing.

Stay current.  Even though the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) became effective in August 2008, many of its provisions were phased in gradually and some became progressively more stringent.  At first, third party testing was not required and later it became mandatory.  Originally 600 parts per million (ppm) was the maximum lead allowed in children’s products, then 300 ppm and now 100 ppm.  In addition to phase in rules, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) continually develops new rules that either modify existing regulations or introduce new ones altogether.  For example, CPSC is currently developing a rulemaking to establish a new federal standard for small, powerful magnet sets which have been sold in the promotional industry as puzzles, sculptures and stress relievers.  To help stay current about CPSC changes, go to http://www.cpsc.gov and sign up for email alerts about rule changes, recalls and other product safety news.  And, in addition to CPSC, there are other federal and state laws to stay abreast of.  For updated news on the entire range of product safety regulation affecting the industry, trade associations and testing labs can be great sources of information.

Instill a Product Safety Culture.  Imagine that one day you decide to start eating nothing but 100% organically grown food.  Think of the challenges you would have at least three times a day for the rest of your life.  What are you going to eat?  Where are you going to buy your food?  Where does that food come from?  How is it grown?  How can you be sure?  Solve that problem for breakfast today and it starts over again at lunch.  Whatever you might have done yesterday to ensure your food supply when you were in Chicago won’t help you at all tomorrow when you’re off to New York.  For you to be successful in this new eating habit, planning in advance for the organic food you are going to eat each day and where you are going to obtain it reliably will have to become second nature, as if it were embedded in your DNA.  And so it is with product safety and compliance.  The kinds of food and ingredient questions you would have to ask every day if you drastically changed your eating habits are the same kinds of questions you should be asking every day to ensure safe and compliant product.  What’s in this product?  Who is going to use it?  Where will it be distributed?  How carefully was it made?  What was it tested for?  Was this shipment tested?  How can I be sure?  Ensuring safe and compliant product is a daily journey, not a destination.  Just like my food example, it requires continuous vigilance and attention, order by order, promotion by promotion.

The more that product safety and compliance becomes second nature and an automatic consideration no matter what client or promotion you’re working on, the more you’ll protect your clients, protect your business and ultimately protect the industry, a responsibility we all have to each other.

This article is scheduled for the October 2013 issue of Wearables Magazine

For Promotional Product Sales, Protect Your Client’s Brand

Whether you are selling to a global brand like Nike or to your local YMCA, no single asset is more valuable to your client than the client’s good name.   Sell them a promotional product that enhances their brand and you’re likely to have a happy customer for a long time.  Sell a product that embarrasses the brand and the cost for everyone involved could be astronomical.

Consider a case involving the Winn Dixie and Publix grocery chains.  In November 2010 investigative reporters from the Tampa Tribune purchased about two dozen reusable grocery bags and sent them to a lab to test whether or not the bags contained lead and other toxic metals.  Some of the bags tested high for lead so the newspaper featured the story in its Sunday edition that week.  Instantly the story went viral on the Internet and became the headline story on news broadcasts nationwide all weekend.  The lead discovered in these bags was relatively low – less than 200 parts per million – and product safety lawyers struggled to find any regulation that had been violated, but none of that mattered.  The story alone was damage enough.  By Monday morning, Senator Charles Schumer of New York was on the floor of the U.S. Senate demanding that the FDA ban all reusable grocery bags containing lead.  “When our families go to the grocery store looking for safe and healthy foods to feed their kids, the last thing they should have to worry about are toxic bags,” said Schumer.   Both grocery chains, and eventually several others, announced nationwide recalls.  Aside from the millions of dollars in recall costs, damage to the reputation of these brands was enormous.  For these grocery chains, all of their efforts to reinforce a “you can trust us” message was undone in one weekend.

The reusable grocery bag story is significant but not unusual.  For better or for worse, ever since the millions of Chinese-made Barbie dolls were recalled for lead paint violations in what has become known as the Summer of Recalls – August 2007 – the promotional products industry has had to deal with a new reality – the world of product safety, regulatory compliance and responsible sourcing.

So how do you embrace this new reality?  Where do you get started and how do you make it part of your culture?

The first and most important step is education.  Learn the basic product safety regulations and how they apply in our industry.  The most comprehensive federal law is the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).  It was enacted in August 2008 and imposes strict lead limits for all children’s products and additional requirements for toys.  Much has been written about how to determine whether the product you’re selling is regarded as a children’s product.  The distinction is not always a bright line and even experts sometimes disagree.  Why does it matter?  In addition to the lead restrictions, children’s products require third party testing, permanent tracking labels and certificates specifying when and where the product was manufactured and tested.  For everyone’s sake – your client, your company and the industry – I recommend a simple rule of thumb:  If the intended audience of a promotion includes children, protect everyone involved.  Don’t let yourself get sucked into a debate of whether the item is a children’s product or a general use product.  For these promotions play it safe and select products that have been produced and tested to CPSIA children’s product standards.

One difficult challenge for the promotional products industry is that many products become children’s products only after they are decorated.  Most blank water bottles, for example, are considered “general use” and not subject to CPSIA.  But if a water bottle is imprinted with a juvenile logo – such as a Winnie-the-Pooh type of character that appeals primarily to young children – it is transformed into a children’s product and becomes subject to the entire suite of children’s product rules.  The same applies to string backpacks and a host of other similar products.  Some suppliers will note on their websites the “child-friendly” products for which they have third-party testing.  Other suppliers have CPSIA test reports for all of their products.  Speak to your suppliers to learn each one’s protocol for children’s products.  Complying with the law is a partnership and requires open communication between distributor and supplier.  You should know which of your supplier’s blank products are “children’s product” compliant just as your supplier should be told when the intended audience for your promotion includes children.  To learn if the intended audience includes children make this a standard question you ask your clients for every order.  In addition to obtaining the information you need to comply with the law, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate to your client your concern for their protection and your knowledge of the law.  In communicating this information to your suppliers, make it your standard practice to note it on applicable purchase orders in bold letters:  The products in this order are intended for an audience that includes children 12 years of age or younger and must comply with all provisions of CPSIA!

Speaking of promotional products suppliers, with product safety and regulatory compliance in mind you should vet each of your suppliers carefully and perhaps through a different lens than you have before.  Does the supplier have a compliance department?  Is there a senior compliance officer who can explain to you how the compliance process works at each of the suppliers’ factories and at their headquarters?  Does the supplier have any quality or product safety certifications?  Do they have inspection records and third-party audits to back up what they’re saying?   Is a risk assessment done on their products before each one is added to the line?   What third- party tests are conducted and how often?  How do you obtain the current test report for each product?  Do the test reports include photographs specific to the supplier’s products or are they generic reports for similar products made by the same factory?  Does the report include all the required tests to comply with U.S. regulations or is the report referring to European standards?   All of these are important questions that you or someone in your organization should know the answers to before doing business with any supplier.

Where can you get this education if you’re new to product safety?   One great resource is the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI).  PPAI frequently offers product safety classes and has an extensive library of on-demand product safety webinars.  It also publishes numerous best practices documents that can help jumpstart your compliance initiative.  PPAI even has an online tool called Turbo Test that walks you through a series of questions to help you determine the compliance requirements for most promotional products.  Testing labs such as UL-STR and Anseco are another resource for product safety and compliance training.  Most labs provide webinars on a variety of product safety and compliance topics and provide consulting services on a product-by-product basis as well.

Like any topic you’ve ever studied, product safety for the promotional industry will take some time to learn.  But if you make the investment in time, you can be certain that it will pay handsome dividends for your career.  When you learn to ask the questions that make it obvious to your client you are just as committed to protecting their name as to making a sale – that you are acting as a fiduciary for their brand – you will enjoy a different relationship than before.  Instead of being regarded as the promotional products sales rep, you will become a valued and trusted advisor to the client, the highest mark of respect you can earn.

 

References:

http://www2.tbo.com/business/breaking-news-business/2010/nov/11/coming-sunday-does-your-grocery-bag-contain-toxic–ar-16265/

http://www2.tbo.com/business/breaking-news-business/2010/nov/14/lead-taints-reusable-bags-ar-15400/

http://www.examiner.com/article/walgreens-and-safeway-recall-reusable-grocery-bags

http://www.consumerfreedom.com/downloads/ccf_bag_report.pdf

http://www.schumer.senate.gov/new_website/record.cfm?id=328640

NOTE:  This article by Rick Brenner originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Print + Promo Magazine.

Updated Toy Safety Standard takes Effect June 12. New Tests Required!

If you import children’s toys, or if you’re a promotional products supplier with children’s toys in your line, effective tomorrow you’ll need to comply with an update to the mandatory Federal Toy Safety Standard.  Among other changes, this revision (ASTM F963-11) adds limits for the soluble amount of eight metals (antimony, arsenic, lead, barium, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and selenium) permitted in toy substrates.  The change is effective for toys manufactured or imported after June 12, 2012 for children 14 years of age or younger.

The ASTM F963 Toy Safety Standard used to be voluntary.  But in 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) made ASTM F963 a mandatory standard.   At that time, the current version of the Toy Safety Standard was F963‑07 with the “07” signifying the year that the latest revision was adopted.  Since then, CPSC has voted to adopt two newer revisions – one issued in 2008 and the latest in December 2011.  In February 2012, the Commission announced in the Federal Register its decision to adopt ASTM F963-11 effective as of June 12, 2012.

For the moment, the law requires you to comply with every provision of the new standard – including the 2011 changes – but doesn’t require you to use a CPSC certified third-party lab to test for the 2011 changes.  The reason is that the Commission has not yet voted to adopt recently proposed rules for third party laboratories which it published in the Federal Register on May 24, 2012.  Comments on these proposed rules are not due until August 7, 2012.

If you have another reliable way to verify compliance for the F963-11 changes—perhaps by testing with an XRF instrument—you could avoid, until CPSC adopts the new rules, the cost of testing the 2011 updates at a third-party lab.  However, this waiver only applies to the F963-11 changes.  You’ll still need a test from a CPSC certified third-party laboratory for the portions of ASTM F963-11 that are “functionally equivalent” to F963-08.

The risk of third-party testing now for the new requirements of F963-11 is that when the proposed rules are finally adopted by CPSC, the lab you choose may not be accredited for the new requirements and you will have to retest at an approved lab.  In my opinion, this is a very minor risk compared to the risk of not having an independent test confirming that your toy complies with the new requirements.

CPSC addressed this in an FAQ on its website:

In the event that a manufacturer or importer wishes to have its products tested now – in the hope that testing to the -11 version eventually will be accepted by the CPSC – that manufacturer or importer should check with its current CPSC-accepted laboratory to see if they will be applying to the CPSC for acceptance of the -11 version. If so, and if the lab satisfies other conditions spelled out in the draft document, then the Commission likely will accept that testing upon its approval of the new Notice of Requirements. (This is not a guarantee of the Commission’s action, but the Commission traditionally has permitted acceptance of such testing, provided that all the other conditions are satisfied.)

It’s always a treacherous scenario in our industry when the law requires strict compliance with a set of standards but doesn’t require third-party testing.  For one thing, it places an extra burden on distributors – to verify that the toys they’re purchasing are compliant with the new standard if the supplier or factory does not have a third party lab report verifying compliance.

My advice is to not buy any toy that is imported or manufactured after June 12, 2012 unless you get a report from well-known third-party laboratory verifying compliance with all the provisions of ASTM F963-11.

For promotional products distributors who maintain test reports in their files of children’s toys they order frequently, or for those who have children’s toys in company stores or in other co-op programs, be sure to go back to your supplier for an updated test report.

The full text of the FAQ from the CPSC website can be found at http://www.cpsc.gov/info/toysafety/plain.html

Compliance is Not Enough for Safe Promotional Products

If attendance at ICPHSO’s 2012 Annual Meeting and Training Symposium is any indication, then the promotional products industry should feel proud of the strides it is making in product safety awareness.  From scant industry attendance just four years ago, this year’s symposium, held earlier this month in Orlando, had strong participation by PPAI, by QCA, and by at least a dozen major promotional products suppliers and distributors.  But while progress is encouraging, the workshops at ICPHSO made clear that product safety is much more than test reports and CPSIA compliance.

ICPHSO is an acronym for the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization.  It is the preeminent International product safety organization and is comprised of accomplished compliance professionals from all over the world – manufacturers, retailers, government regulators, attorneys, testing labs, standards developers, academia and consumer advocates.  Chances are, if you’re selling promotional products to a major corporation, its product safety team participates in ICPHSO.  More than 600 attendees made the pilgrimage to Orlando this year to share their knowledge, to learn from their peers, to network with like-minded colleagues and to mingle with government regulators from countries around the globe.

This year’s major topic was manufacturing and the challenges of producing safe and compliant products consistently in factories all over the world.  Traceability and supply chain transparency was a common theme in several presentations.  It was comforting to hear that even the largest companies struggle with this issue just as many importers do in our industry.  Jennifer Weaver, Director of Quality Assurance at Under Armour, noted that while she closely supervises Under Armour’s factories, her company does not even attempt to trace production from suppliers of items such as buttons, zippers and seams.  The consensus seemed to be that each manufacturer/importer must develop a plan based on a risk assessment of its own particular products.

While most product safety initiatives in the promotional industry are focused on compliance – CPSIA, FDA, Prop 65 and similar regulations – ICPHSO has always taken a deeper approach to consumer product safety.  Several experts spoke of the importance of avoiding product related injuries by building in safety from the beginning – by designing out safety defects at the product development stage and by considering the foreseeable abuse and misuse of a product as well as its intended use.   Another important topic focused on the importance of recall preparedness – having a well-practiced plan in place for the inevitable situations where unsafe products are discovered after a product goes to market.  Time is always of the essence in such cases, including the obligation to report to CPSC.  One of the most impressive presentations of the week was by Jennifer Thompson of Costco who explained the sophistication, speed and effectiveness with which Costco implements recalls and notifies customers who have purchased recalled products.

So while we should be proud as an industry of the product safety strides we are making – through PPAI’s Product Responsibility Action Group (PRAG), through QCA, and through individual company initiatives – the ICPHSO presentations illustrate how product safety has to become part of the culture of all industry participants if we’re truly to protect our industry.  For example, how many promotional products are imported without a formal risk assessment or without evaluation for product safety hazards?  In some cases these tests can seem unaffordable but the risk of not testing can be even more expensive.  A few years ago our product development team was considering a spa kit for our line – one that contained a variety of aloe-type skin creams and lotions.  The kit would have sold for less than $10.  In performing our risk assessment we asked a well-known cosmetics lab to verify that the lotions were of the quality that the Asian factory contended and that they did not contain any harmful ingredients or toxins.  The lab quoted $28,000 for the tests.  This may be a normal cost for a major cosmetics company but for most of our industry it isn’t a reasonable value proposition, particularly when the supplier has no idea if the product will even sell.  Accordingly, we did not add the spa kit to our line.  Now this week, in an unrelated case, the FDA has issued a dire warning about dangerous levels of poisonous mercury found in a variety of imported skin creams and antiseptic soaps or lotions found in at least seven states.  Just imagine how this could have impacted our industry if these poisonous lotions had been purchased through a promotional products distributor and given away in a spa kit by a major corporation.

So given the practical and realistic resources of most companies in the promotional products industry what can importers do to ensure that the products we are selling are not only compliant but also truly safe?  Here is a good starting list:

1)     Appoint someone in your company as product safety lead.  Send that person to product safety training such as a class offered by a major testing lab or the Certificate in Product Safety Management program offered by Saint Louis University.   Your designee should develop and implement a risk assessment process, maintain your product safety documentation and act as the point person if your company is ever involved in a recall.  Once these basic processes are in place, take the initiative to the next level.  Develop a comprehensive quality manual for all of your supply chain standard operating procedures and also develop a recall preparedness plan.

2)     As a supplier, manufacturer or importer, perform a basic risk assessment before adding any product to your line or before ordering it for your customer.  Even without independent testing, much can be done to minimize risk and promote safety.  Evaluate how well the product is constructed, the quality of materials, whether it will shatter when dropped, if it has sharp edges, choke or bite hazards as well as other foreseeable risks. Obtain a bill of materials for the product and identify any potentially hazardous materials or components.  Subject the product to reasonable use and abuse testing even if you have to test it yourself and be sure to consider the foreseeable misuse of the product, particularly by children.

3)     Test the product to simulate how well it performs.  If it is a bag, for example, how much weight will it bear reliably before the fabric, seams or straps give way.   Are there embellishments like buttons, grommets, labels, labels or hooks?  If so, how securely are they fastened?  If they break off will any sharp edges remain?  Is there any chrome or electroplating?  Is the quality high enough that it won’t peel or curl leaving knife like edges?

4)     Investigate whether the product, its components or its packaging is subject to any state or Federal regulation.   In addition to CPSC regulation, many promotional products are also regulated by the FDA, including hand sanitizer, first aid kits, sunglasses and food contact materials such as drinkware.  If the product is regulated be sure you have current (within a year) third party tests showing that the product complies with all of the regulatory requirements of current law.

5)     Consider identifying products in your line that contain toxins.  BPA, lead, phthalates and cadmium have all come under scrutiny by Congress, by CPSC, and by FDA but are still allowed by law for most products.  Some of your customers or your customer’s customer may have policies against purchasing products containing these substances.  An alternate idea is to identify the products in your line that are lead free, phthalate free, cadmium free and BPA free and note this in your catalog, advertisements and on your web site.

6)     Determine if any special labeling is required to warn against any hazards, to note any stress limits and to identify the appropriate age for the product.

This is certainly not a comprehensive list but it’s a good start and would go a long way to raising the bar for product safety in the promotional products industry. In the months ahead, PRAG will be working towards proposing a similar suite of “best practices” for product safety that all industry participants can rally around.  The more that all of us do to promote product safety – compliant products and safe products – the more we do to protect our clients and our livelihood.

(To learn more about ICPHSO and its programs, visit www.ICPHSO.org)

Could Your Promotional Products Business Withstand a Recall?

Just for a moment try to imagine that a promotional product you sold to your largest customer has suddenly become the subject of a government recall.  Hundreds or even thousands of consumers have to be notified immediately that it may be dangerous to use the item that was given to them as a gift.  And to be sure there’s no confusion, pictures have to be posted in multiple locations and on the Internet showing the ill-fated product with your customers logo displayed next to the danger warnings.  The product you chose is now a public albatross for everyone involved.  The recall and legal costs are almost certainly going to be enormous, as is the liability exposure.  And to top it off, the incident is a colossal embarrassment for you and for your client.

Try to imagine the pain of what that would feel like, especially if you could have avoided it all – including the potential loss of a prized customer – with just an ounce of prevention.

Recalls happen for a variety of reasons but most of them revolve around the risk of injury to consumers.  Government regulations are established to ensure safe products so violation of any regulation can trigger a recall.  If your promotion includes a food product that isn’t properly labeled with allergens the FDA can mandate a recall.  CPSC can do the same for products that contain more lead than allowed by CPSIA or toys that fail to pass the toy safety standard.

Recalls come about in a lot of different ways.  It could start with something as simple as a call from your client that someone reported an injury or that the product shattered when it fell on the floor.  Sometimes a consumer advocacy group will test a product and report to CPSC that it contains excessive lead, phthalates or fails some other mandatory test.

For consumer products, the law requires immediate notification of the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) when a company obtains information that supports a conclusion that a product distributed in commerce fails to meet a product standard or contains a defect that can create a substantial risk or injury to consumers. If CPSC staff concludes that a recall is warranted, they will usually suggest a “voluntary recall” although the Commission has the right to enforce a mandatory recall.  FDA has similar procedures for the products it regulates.  Promotional products that fall within FDA oversight include hand sanitizer, sunglasses, first aid kits as well as food and food contact items.

As painful as a recall can be, failure to report can be even worse.  Sometimes a company will find out about an injury or that a product it distributed has failed a test, and will try to handle it on its own, without involving the governmental agency, perhaps by notifying customers to return the item.  CPSC is particularly unforgiving in these instances no matter how sincere or thorough a company may be in its attempt to self-resolve the issue.  Public Citizen, a watchdog group, reports that between 2002 and 2007 CPSC fined companies an average of $452,000 for failure to report, filing late reports or withholding key details from the agency such as information about customer complaints.  In more recent cases the agency has become even more aggressive with some fines in excess of $1 million.

So what about that ounce of prevention?  What are some things you can do to prevent a product safety nightmare?  The answers may seem obvious or common sense but you’d be surprised how easy they can be to overlook when you’re stressed or rushing to complete a last minute promotion.

  1. Slow down.  Take the time to understand the promotion and how the client is going to use the product.  Who is the intended audience? Are children involved?  How old are the children?
  2. How well do you know the supplier and the supplier’s products?  What do you know about the supplier’s processes to ensure safe and compliant products?  What tests are conducted, by whom and how often?
  3. Did you obtain an actual sample of the product?   How well is it constructed?  Does it have any sharp edges?  Could the material shatter?  Can you foresee any safety issues?
  4. Is the product a potential choke hazard for children?  If so, does it have proper warnings?
  5. Is the product an electric product?  If so, does it have an independent lab safety rating, such as by Underwriters Laboratory?
  6. Have you researched whether there any state or Federal regulations that apply to the product or its packaging?  If so, have you received current test reports from the supplier and had a qualified person confirm that the test reports are thorough and that the product meets all required standards.  (PPAI has a very good tool on its website called Turbo Test which can help identify any applicable regulations.)
  7. Does your client have any testing requirements that go beyond the state and Federal requirements?  Some companies require a product to pass children’s product or toy standards even if they aren’t children’s products.

Most of us have owned a product that was involved in a recall sometime during our lives.  Maybe it was a car or a coffee pot, a battery or a crib.   Mistakes happen even to the most sterling and trustworthy brands.  Search “product recall” on Google and your hits will include Mercedes Benz, BMW, GE, Apple Computer, and Fisher Price.

But while you can’t guarantee immunity from every problem, if you’re a savvy shopper, learn the risk factors and always do your homework, you’ll exponentially reduce the risk of a product safety fiasco.

Loopholes in Product Safety Law Put Compliance Burden on You

You sell a product to a Little League for distribution to seven year olds.  Would your client expect the product to comply with Federal children’s product standards?

The answer, I suspect, is a resounding “yes” just as you would expect the toys you buy for your own kids to be able to pass the Federal Toy Safety Standard and the food you purchase to be able to pass FDA food standards.

Unfortunately for the promotional products industry, things are not that simple.  The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) – the Federal law that governs children’s products – includes a basic definition for children’s products that is ambiguous at best.  The agency that enforces this Act, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), came up with an enhanced definition that introduces new issues as it tries to clarify the original.  Take the case of a simple water bottle destined for a second grade Little League team.  If the name of the team is imprinted in a plain type style the bottle is considered a general use item – not a children’s product – because CPSC says it appeals to all ages including the 7 year old Little Leaguers.   Most importantly, general use items don’t have to comply with children’s product standards.   But the identical water bottle decorated with a Winnie the Pooh type character – something that would only appeal to the young children – is considered a children’s product and has to comply with the CPSIA standards.  Same bottle.  Same kids.  Different decoration.  One has to comply, one doesn’t.

Say that your order was for the plain type version – the one that doesn’t have to comply with CPSIA.  And say that the plastic lid of the bottle you sell the Little League happens to contain 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of lead – 10 times the CPSIA limit for children’s products.  Now imagine that some consumer advocacy group gets hold of one of those bottles, tests it and then tells the league it intends to send a press release to the media that Little League is distributing lead-laden bottles to seven year olds.  Do you think the league administrators or the parents would be comforted or placated by your explanation that the product is a general use item that doesn’t have to comply with children’s product standards?  Not likely.

One reason for these challenges in our industry is that most promotional products are not “children’s products” as blank, undecorated products.  Non-children’s blanks only become children’s products if they are decorated with a juvenile design and even then only if the products are “mainly” for children 12 and under and have declining appeal to older kids.

Suppliers deal with this blanks-that-could-become-children’s-products challenge individually.  Some test all of their products to children’s product standards, some indicate on their websites the specific products which have been tested and for some you may have to make a call to find out which products are compliant and have been tested.    The most important point is that the burden is on you to find this information out before you place your order, to avoid selecting a product which has not been tested as compliant.

In summary, when kids are part of the audience for the products you sell, my advice is to ignore the loopholes in CPSIA and insist on choosing products that have been tested by a third party lab as compliant with children’s product regulations.    Just keep reminding yourself, “If children are involved, would my client expect the products I’m recommending to have been tested to children’s product standards?”  Let that be your guide and you’ll never go wrong.

Time to Take a Closer Look at the Test Reports in Your Files

With the deadline for mandatory third party lead testing less than two months away, now would be a very good time to take a closer look at the third-party test reports in your files. There’s a good chance that upon closer inspection you might find that for certain products the reports you’re relying on for compliance might not be very reliable.

In the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), Congress mandated that an accredited third party laboratory must test children’s products before they can be distributed in commerce. Testing for lead in paint or surface coating has been required since December of 2008. Testing for lead in substrate will take effect on January 1, 2012.

So what are the reliability concerns I’m raising?

While some question the accuracy of the tests – by showing inconsistent results from one lab to the next—that isn’t the issue I see. My concern is more serious—that some of the test reports you receive may not even be for the same product that you’re selling. In those cases, the reports are not reliable and provide a false sense of security to you and to your customers.

Here’s one way that happens:  Instead of ordering tests for their own products, U.S. importers often turn to their overseas factories for testing. But some of these factories—particularly ones that supply similar versions of their products to multiple customers in the US—may try to mitigate the cost by testing only a small subset of their products—sometimes only one SKU out of a varied line of products. Instead of testing the actual products as produced for each of their customers, they send a generic version of their product to a lab and then they give these test results to every customer who requests a test report. I’ve seen tests like this more times than I can count.

So what’s the problem with this practice?

Well, there’s no problem with a U.S. importer having their overseas factory order the testing from an accredited lab as long as the tested version of the product is exactly the same in all material respects as the product they’re selling—same item, same finish, same color, same trim, same design, same paint and substrate materials, same raw material supplier, and the same factory. But that’s often not the case.

The more common scenario is that the generic version is similar but different from your product. It might be a different material or color, have different trim details or include additional features from the generic version.  Any of these differences requires a separate third party test.

Another possibility is that the report you have is for a completely different product from yours. Overseas factories don’t always test every product they produce.  I’ve seen cases where a factory will respond to a test request by sending any report they have in their files.  Unless the US firm receiving the report is trained in what to look for, these reports are often accepted as is and passed along to customers.

So how can you tell if your report is really for your product?

  1. Is the product named in the report exactly the same way as it is listed on the web or in the catalog where you found it?  If your product is a Bonzo HT-341 in midnight blue, does the test report say Bonzo HT-341 in midnight blue?  Be wary of reports with generic product descriptions like “Plastic Bottle” or “Tote Bag” and few product details.
  2. Does the test report include a picture of the product?  Is the picture exactly the same as your product and does it include your color?  The best test reports include detailed photographs of the actual products tested.
  3. Look for the name of the company who ordered the test. Is it the same as the company you are buying the product from or is it a company you’ve never heard of?  There’s no problem with tests ordered by overseas factories if they’re for your actual product but be wary of reports ordered by factories for generic versions of their products.

These tips are just a few of the basics in evaluating test reports. I’ve listed several others in my September 30th article If You Sell Promotional Products, Learn to Read a Test Report. And if you’re a PPAI member, check out the November 2nd webinar entitled How to Read a Test Report. It is archived on PPAI’s website.

Test reports are an important part of your due diligence to ensure that the products you’re selling comply with applicable law. Your customers are relying on the integrity of the reports you provide. Take this opportunity to go through your files to verify that you have current test reports for the products you’re selling and that the reports really are for your specific products.

Distributor to Supplier: Is this Product OK for Children?

I received a call last week from a distributor concerned about an order she had recently shipped through an industry supplier for a children’s event. The distributor told me she had inquired of the supplier’s customer service rep if the product was OK for children but was now wondering what else she should have done. Here is a capsule of what I recommended.

Start by asking for the product’s General Certification of Conformity (GCC) as well as its most recent test reports. A GCC is required by federal law for every consumer product subject to any rule or regulation enforced by CPSC. Regardless of what the test report says, the GCC is the best way to find out if the supplier considers the product as a “children’s product.” If the supplier does not, even if the test report passes CPSIA standards, it is a red flag that the supplier might not be monitoring each production run to children’s product standards.

Recommendation 1 (Children’s Product): If you sell a product that you know is intended for children, be sure that the supplier acknowledges through the GCC that it is a children’s product. Then, if something goes wrong later, you won’t risk being in the position of the supplier saying “we didn’t know it was for children and we never said it was a children’s product.”

So how do you find out from the GCC if the supplier considers the product a “children’s product?”  You do so by examining the section of the GCC listing the applicable regulations. CPSIA requires the importer or domestic manufacturer to list every CPSC-enforced rule that applies to the product. If the supplier doesn’t have a GCC for the product, or if the section noting the applicable rules is blank, it means that the supplier is not acknowledging that the product is a children’s product or a children’s toy.

If the item is certified for use as a children’s product you will see at least two rules listed. The first is CPSIA lead-in-substrate, sometimes called total lead. The second is lead-in-surface coating, sometimes called 16 CFR 1303. Lead in substrate refers to lead in the material that the product is made of. Lead in surface coating refers to lead in any painted surfaces or in the imprint.

If the item is certified as a children’s toy you will see at least two more rules in addition to the two lead provisions. One is the mandatory toy safety standard called ASTM F963. That used to be a voluntary standard but Congress made it mandatory when they passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). The second toy related rule applies to chemicals referred to as “phthalates.” CPSIA prohibits the sale of children’s toys with concentrations of more than .1% of any of the phthalates DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP and DnOP.

Recommendation 2 (Children’s Toy): Same concept as recommendation 1. If you sell a product that you know is likely to be used a children’s toy, be sure the supplier acknowledges through the GCC that it is a children’s toy.

The GCC requires other information you should note as well. First, make sure that the product identified on the GCC is exactly the same as they one you’re buying. Second, look for the name of the U.S. importer or domestic manufacturer certifying compliance of the product.  Is it the name of the supplier you’re ordering from?  If not – perhaps because the supplier bought the product from a local wholesaler – is it a company you know and are comfortable with? The name on the GCC is the party certifying compliance – the party legally responsible if something goes wrong – and ultimately the party you’re entrusting with your client’s logo. And if this isn’t challenging enough, if the supplier buys a blank from an importer and then decorates the product, you need two GCCs – one for the product and one for the decoration.

Recommendation 3 (Responsible party): Look at the GCC for the party certifying compliance. If it is not the supplier you’re buying the product from then learn who the importer is and whether it is someone you feel is reliable. Also, in that circumstance, find out if the decoration is to be applied by the importer or someone else – your supplier or a sub contractor. If the answer is “someone else” you’ll need a separate GCC for the decoration.

The next important point relates to testing. The GCC requires the date and place where the product was tested for each regulation cited on the GCC and it requires the identification of any third-party laboratory on whose testing the certification depends. Look at the test reports you received and be sure they correspond to exactly what you see on the GCC. The lab name, test date and tests listed should match one for one with the same information noted on the GCC.

Recommendation 4 (Testing): I have written previously on the topic of how to read test reports to be sure your product complies as well as on the limitations of these reports. Review these articles at http://rickbrenner.com and keep them handy for reference. In a nutshell, be sure you have a current test report from a CPSC-certified third party laboratory, that the report is for the identical product, SKU number and color that you ordered, that it includes legible photographs of the product, and that it certifies compliance with every regulation identified on the GCC. You should also be sure that the test report is based on the most current version of the law. A passing grade from June 2011 doesn’t necessarily mean that the product passes the new lead threshold that took effect in August 2011.

There are a few other things to note as well:

  • A separate GCC is required for every production run – indicating the manufacture date. Be sure that that the GCC you receive is specific to the product you’ve received.
  • Ask your supplier to confirm that the product you are receiving is being manufactured in the same factory where the tested product was manufactured, that there have been no changes in the design or bill of materials since the test and that the tested product was produced from the same raw materials as your production pieces. If not, you should insist that your production pieces be tested.
  • It is best to communicate directly with your supplier’s compliance department or the supplier’s person responsible for compliance. Product safety laws are complicated and evolving. The people most likely to know the most are those who deal with compliance every day. My recommendation is to deal with suppliers who are knowledgeable about these product safety and compliance matters and who provide you with direct phone and email access to get your questions answered.
  • This article applies specifically to the children’s product provisions in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). There are other federal product safety regulations and there are several state regulations. PPAI has developed an excellent tool called Turbo Test to help distributors and suppliers determine the regulations that may apply to a wide range of products in the industry and PPAI also has a relationship with a third party laboratory that is available to advise members. Also, there are many attorneys whose practices include a specialty in product safety legislation.

Prime Sample GCC

CPSC Sample Format – GCC   (Note: This link also includes an FAQ from the Commission about GCCs)