Monday, February 22, 2010

New chief of product safety jumps into action

WASHINGTON — The new head of consumer product safety in the United States has quickly put American and foreign toymakers, crib manufacturers and producers of other goods on notice that there's a new sheriff in town.
The sheriff is a she.

Folks who have worked with Inez Tenenbaum say that despite her small physical stature and genteel Southern manners, the former South Carolina public schools chief is tough as nails.

"Her daddy always told her that dynamite comes in small packages," Liz Crum, a Columbia, S.C., lawyer and longtime friend of Tenenbaum, said in an interview. "That is absolutely true of Inez. No one should ever underestimate her."

RelatedTracking Tenenbaum

Tenenbaum, who was defeated in a 2004 U.S. Senate race in South Carolina by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, has started with a bang in her job as chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In just eight months since President Barack Obama named Tenenbaum, and the Senate confirmed her, for the post, she has haggled with Chinese officials over lead in toys, consoled parents of toddlers who died in defective cribs, and toured Florida houses built with Chinese drywall that is making homeowners sick.

Tenenbaum has parried with lawmakers grandstanding for the cameras at congressional hearings, and she has been a frequent guest on morning talk shows and news programs to publicize product recalls.

Already, Tenenbaum is overseeing the largest crib recall in U.S. history — the repair or return of 2.1 million drop-side baby beds made by Canada-based Stork Craft Manufacturing after four reported deaths of infants who suffocated when the railings pinned their heads.

Tenenbaum, 58, is overseeing the revitalization of the key federal consumer product safety agency after years of neglect and budget cuts under President George W. Bush.

Agency fully staffed

For the first time in a quarter-century, all five commissioners are in place, and the 500-strong staff of scientists, engineers, researchers and other analysts is expanding.

The agency is required to police the production and sale of 15,000 products on a relatively modest annual budget of $118 million — which nevertheless is almost twice the funding level of $63 million Congress provided just four years ago.

The commission's power has been augmented under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which Congress passed and Bush signed into law in 2008 after a wave of high-profile recalls of mainly Chinese-made toys with high levels of lead.

"When you look at where we have been and where we are headed, you can see why we are an agency on the rise," Tenenbaum told hundreds of delegates last week at the annual convention of the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization.

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