Separate agencies of the federal government handle different aspects of consumer protection
Over the years, decades and centuries, consumer protections have been developed to safeguard the public from poisonous, defective and dangerous products. Food safety for example is one consumer protection that has been around since Biblical times.
Governments throughout history have chartered agencies to safeguard the public from these dangers.
We have four principal ones in the United States – the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Continue reading for a brief history of each and the types of products they regulate.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
The U.S. CPSC was formed in 1972 with the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Act, which was aimed at protecting the public “against unreasonable risks of injuries associated with consumer products.”
As an independent agency, the CPSC doesn’t report to any particular federal department or agency in the executive branch. Its board consists of three commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for seven-year terms.
Congress created the agency to provide uniformity in consumer safety standards across the U.S. Prior to 1972, each state had its own standards, which caused major headaches for manufacturers. The agency has jurisdiction over 15,000 types of consumer products fall that into four distinct categories – school or household use, sports and recreation.
While the agency doesn’t test, certify or recommend products, it does help consumers identify what safety features to look for and works with manufacturers in announcing recalls. Manufacturers will voluntarily recall products if they’re defective or they violate CPSC standards.
Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
The basis for regulating how food is handled and produced has been with the U.S. since its inception in the late 18th century. Over time, the FDA has morphed into the agency that oversees not only the safety of all food products except meat and poultry, but drugs, cosmetics, veterinary products and medical equipment as well.
Beginnings of the FDA can be traced to the founding of the republic and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution. What began as a small committee of doctors morphed into one of the largest agencies in the government.
Historical records indicate that regulation of prescription drugs began around 1820 and in the nearly two centuries since, a litany of laws have been passed regulating everything from labeling foods and drugs to regulating pesticides. The most recent product to be added to the FDA’s jurisdiction was tobacco in 2009.
The FDA is under the auspices of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, a cabinet level department whose secretary is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
The USDA is another cabinet-level agency of the federal government whose director is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Created in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, the USDA’s primary consumer protection function is responsible for ensuring the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products are safe.
Agencies within the USDA are responsible for regulating and providing services for a wide variety of agriculture and rural interests.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service focuses on food inspection as outlined above. Other agencies of the USDA include: Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service. Each of these agencies has been created over the years by either executive orders or new legislation from the Congress.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Regulating transportation in the U.S. stems from 1940 when the U.S. government passed legislation mandating the use of sealed beam headlights in automobiles.
But apathy in the matter ruled the land until the mid-1960s and the release of impactful reports from the National Academies of Sciences and a compelling book by consumer safety advocate Ralph Nader entitled Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.
Publications like these along with an increasing chorus from the American public prompted Congress to pass the 1966 Highway Safety Act to ensure each state had highway safety programs to reduce accidents and their associated deaths, injuries and property damage. The Act also attempted to improve the timeliness and adequacy of emergency care for accident victims, laying the foundations for today’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
The NHTSA was originally named the National Highway Safety Bureau until passage of the Highway Safety Act in 1970. It is part of the Department of Transportation, a cabinet level department that also regulates railroads (Federal Railroad Administration), aviation (Federal Aviation Administration) and boating (Maritime Administration).