A top shipment arriving in Detroit by air not long ago drew the interest of the Consumer Product Safety Commission after the agency got a heads up from data collected by Customs and Border Protection. Carol Cave, CPSC director of surveillance, said the toy included a small ball that could be a choking hazard for children.
CPSC inspectors seized the shipment, but then Customs found something else: balloons with phony trademarks that violated intellectual property regulations. If the Consumer Product Safety Commission hadn’t flagged the shipment, Customs would never have found the IPR violations.
“It was a shared benefit and a difficult mode of entry,” Cave said. It was also an example of the greater cooperation and collaboration among federal regulatory agencies that gained momentum under the direction of Alan Bersin, who left as customs commissioner at the end of last year.
The 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act gave the CPSC the authority to stop shipments on its own orders, rather than requesting Customs to do it. Cave said the CPSC has developed a risk-based model to identify and set priorities for the goods the agency may want to inspect. The CPSC now receives data tailored to regulatory requirements that have been filtered from the huge volume of entry information Customs receives every day.
While the system gives the Consumer Product Safety Commission more information to identify hazardous goods imports, it also benefits shippers. Importers with compliant goods don’t face the prospect that they will be stopped only because the CPSC thinks there is a problem.
“It’s essentially (a) green lane unless we say no. We don’t want to stop unnecessary shipments,” Cave said. “We are able to systematically analyze 100 percent of the shipments coming in under our jurisdiction. As a result, we see that our inspections will go up, but on the other hand, it’s giving us a level of compliance with the trade that is much higher than it’s been in the past.”
Before the CPSC began using data from Customs, it held between 45 percent and 50 percent of the shipments under its jurisdiction for lab testing. Now the rate is 65 percent and rising.
“When we first approached this, we thought we would be getting daily feeds. That would have been fine with us, but it’s actually hourly. It’s very fast,” Cave said. “Giving us this access allows us to evaluate risk scores, prioritize things for our limited staff (to) look at.
“It has proved to be very effective. We have it rolled out to a few of the ports, where we’re now co-located with Customs. Those locations are monitoring and targeting as appropriate,” Cave said. “It’s also all modes of transportation. We may be co-located at a seaport, but we’re looking at things that may be arriving by rail or air or truck. If something risky arrives, we can alert field staff to inspect them.”
The CPSC has a small staff looking at inbound cargo. There are 19 CPSC inspectors stationed at 15 major ports, plus two at Customs’ Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center in Washington. Cave said there are also 80 field inspectors who can be called on for special duty, but most of their time is investigating consumers’ complaints about hazardous products.
The Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center brings together officers from the CPSC, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies with regulatory jurisdiction at U.S. ports and borders. The benefits the CPSC receives eventually will be available to all other agencies.
In time, Customs will link to all the other agencies, but Cave urges patience. “It’s taken us a long time to get here, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to recognize that Customs has some 50 other agencies all screaming at them to do the same thing.”
Customs doesn’t have the personnel to accommodate all requests at the same time. “The biggest advice I can give is (ask), how do the other agencies re-engineer internally to be able to use this data to their benefit?” Cave said. “That’s the biggest struggle, because people are not receptive to change.”