Congress adds $50 million for safety checks on toys, imports after USA TODAY exposed COVID-19 lapses

Letitia Stein and Brett Murphy, USA TODAY
·3 min read

Congress has set aside $50 million to protect Americans from dangerous and deadly products, bolstering a new mandate for stronger surveillance of the nation’s ports following a USA TODAY investigation that exposed major safety lapses during the pandemic.

The funds were embedded in the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress on Wednesday, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign. It is a significant cash infusion for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, with a $133 million annual budget to set and enforce safety standards for everything from cribs to lawn mowers.

The legislation marks the second response by Congress to the agency’s decision — made in secret — to send home its port safety inspectors for nearly six months last year because of the threat of COVID-19.

During prime import months for holiday toys, USA TODAY found that tens of thousands of shipments reached store shelves and American homes without standard screenings for lead, hazardous chemicals and small parts that can choke toddlers.

Investigation: Toys at risk for lead, poison after US stopped inspections amid COVID-19

CPSC Commissioner Peter Feldman said in a statement that he has long advocated for “allocating our scarce resources to the Commission’s core mission of boots on the ground and staff in our lab.”

“Congress’s directive makes clear in its two bills that it agrees,” he said.

The agency now must work to meet Congressional orders to return port staffing fully and report back on how it plans to address any dangerous products that entered the country, he noted.

A cargo ship is docked at the Port of Los Angeles, in Los Angeles on June 19, 2019.
A cargo ship is docked at the Port of Los Angeles, in Los Angeles on June 19, 2019.

As of late last year, even though inspectors returned to ports beginning in September, the agency still was not operating in five of the 18 ports it usually patrols, USA TODAY found.

The consumer safety commission did not respond to a request for comment. Last month, it declined to answer questions from USA TODAY about whether it is now back in those ports, which included major commerce hubs in Chicago, New York and Savannah, Georgia.

“Consumer protection will be well served by the new resources provided to this small but critically important agency,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, chairma of a subcommittee overseeing the consumer agency. “Even more support should be provided, and I will fight for it.”

Blumenthal, who previously called the port safety lapses inexcusable, noted a recent report by the agency showing rising injuries for children from household hazards such as batteries and cleaning solvents during the pandemic.

After USA TODAY’s investigation, Congress directed the agency to not only resume its port operations but expand them. Earlier pandemic relief legislation instructs the safety commission to increase its surveillance staff with at least 16 new hires. It usually has about 32 inspectors working at ports.

The agency can spend the new funding through 2026.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois who chairs the House consumer protection subcommittee, said in a statement the funding will save lives, but it's not enough for the chronically underfunded agency.

“This one-time cash infusion is just the first step toward putting the agency back on track," she said, "to have the resources it needs to protect Americans from unsafe consumer products."

Letitia Stein and Brett Murphy are reporters on the USA TODAY investigations team. Contact Letitia at, @LetitiaStein, by phone or Signal at 813-524-0673 and Brett at, @brettMmurphy by Signal at 508-523-5195.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Congress funds consumer safety checks for dangerous toys, imports