Looking Out For The Consumer

Maryland lawmakers have been responding to public calls for protection from dangerous products and predatory practices

April 05, 2009|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,liz.kay@baltsun.com

Amid public concern about contaminated goods and complex financial instruments, consumer advocates are pressing the General Assembly for safeguards on products ranging from baby bottles to credit cards.

"People in the consumer protection movement consider this a teachable moment," said Charles Shafer, president of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.

Over the past year, recalls of peanut products for salmonella, problems with spinach as a result of E.coli contamination and reports about high lead levels in toys have left many consumers scared and angry.

With all that news, there's more momentum to protect consumers from toxic chemicals, said Johanna Neumann, state director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

These days, she said, "consumers are much more cautious. They want government to be there to protect them from dangers in the marketplace. With the whole host of breakdowns in our consumer product safety net in the past couple of years, unless they demand government to be a good watchdog it's not necessarily going to be that way."

Business leaders want the General Assembly to move cautiously, however, to ensure that new laws don't put Maryland businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

"We are in a recession. We don't want to put people at risk, but nor do we want to put these businesses in an uncompetitive situation," said Kathy Snyder, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

Among the measures being considered as the General Assembly enters its final week:

* Bisphenol-A. The House of Delegates has approved a ban on the substance in baby bottles and cups. Bisphenol-A has hormone-like effects on developing reproductive and nervous systems, according to legislative reports. Originally, the bill called for banning the substance from all products, including linings of canned food.

* decaBDE. Delegates have approved a ban on the flame retardant decabrominated diphenyl ether, also known as decaBDE. Two other forms of flame retardants are already prohibited because of health concerns. Research is not clear on whether decaBDE is harmful or whether it breaks down into harmful by-products, according to legislative reports, but the state Department of the Environment says the substance builds up in animals and people over time.

* Animal fur. The Senate has approved a bill requiring products made of animal fur to carry a label indicating what type of animal it came from, as well as the country of origin. Federal law requires labeling of animal fur products, but only those worth more than $150.

Animal rights activists say consumers don't realize that some products include dog fur. Some of those products have been dyed unusual colors, so shoppers might assume that hot pink or turquoise fur trim is faux, said Pierre Grzybowski, manager of the Humane Society's fur-free campaign.

"I just think as a matter of principle, consumers should know what they're getting," Neumann said. "It goes with the idea that we should be able to make informed decisions in the marketplace. If retailers think people aren't going to buy it because it's dog fur, they should think about that before they sell it."

Last year, the Humane Society advised Overstock.com that products described as raccoon fur were actually made from skins of an Asian dog breed raised for fur in China. The online retailer stopped selling the items, which had provided millions in revenue.

The animal fur bill has been amended to reduce the fines that store owners would face, but Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, still opposes the bill because manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors handle products before they reach retailers. "We don't think the retailers are really in the position to make this decision," he said.

Snyder, of the Chamber of Commerce, noted that a new federal administration has just taken office and said state leaders should allow it a chance to tackle some problems. "We ask the Maryland General Assembly to be very cautious about certainly protecting the public but looking toward the Obama administration and Congress to deal with FDA and EPA issues."

The House has also passed a bill prohibiting universal default provisions - in which failure to pay one creditor promptly triggers a chain reaction with other creditors lowering credit limits or raising interest rates.

Shafer, of the consumer rights coalition, said federal regulators have already approved rules to prohibit the practice, but the rules don't take effect until 2010. The Maryland proposal would also cover local and statewide businesses not subject to the federal regulation.

The Chamber of Commerce submitted testimony opposing this bill, concerned that the language was vague and that the issue would be addressed by the federal regulations.

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