Boost the consumer safety panel

In the year since the Consumer Affairs Agency started a new Consumer Safety Investigation Committee to investigate consumer incidents, things have not gone well. The committee originally aimed to examine 100 cases per year, but then reduced that to 30 cases. In the end, it actually investigated only six of the some 4,000 consumer incidents reported every year.

Despite this rough start, the need for such a committee remains imperative. With 10 to 12 incidents reported on average every day, consumers deserve better support and protection. The purpose of the committee is to investigate reported incidents, determine causes and, if necessary, make recommendations for compensation or criminal charges. But from the start the committee has experienced significant problems.

The committee has been handicapped by insufficient funding. It needs to have more investigators than the 21 now employed. Currently many of those contributing to investigations are specialists who are not full-time members of the committee. With a large payroll, more investigators can talk to more specialists on the specifics of each investigation.

For example, it was not possible for the committee to hire a full-time elevator specialist when it investigated an accident involving an elevator that crushed a high school student in Tokyo’s Minato Ward in 2006. Sufficient numbers of investigators are needed to collect specialist knowledge in all consumer safety cases. Therefore, the committee should also be given more power to compel companies, the police and victims of consumer incidents to talk with the committee.

In some cases, the committee was shut out of investigations conducted by other administrative organizations. When cases fall under the domain of other administrative organizations, such as the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry or the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, the consumer safety committee has been given second priority or kept out of the loop. When cases are ongoing in the courts, investigators have even been barred from some proceedings, either by these organizations or by lawyers of the victims. Greater cooperation between the different overlapping ministries and the committee is a prime necessity.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, an independent organization in the United States, conducts 8,000 investigations per year and is staffed by 500 officials with a budget equivalent to ¥9.5 billion. Japan’s six investigations, 21 officials and ¥100 million budget cannot begin to compare.

While the general safety of Japanese consumer products may be relatively high, consumers deserve a thorough, open and serious investigation when they do encounter problems. The safety of Japanese consumers is an integral part of Japan’s economic and social well-being. As such, it deserves careful monitoring and, when needed, reparation and improvement. This committee is an important tool for ensuring that Japan’s consumer products are safe. Its funding should be increased to improve its performance.