Independent Laboratories and a Test of the Public Confidence
July 9, 2008
Michael Violette, P.E.
Director, American Council of Independent Laboratories
‘Never refuse a breath mint’, someone advised me a long time ago. And speaking of breath mints, here are some newly-imported spearmint beauties: they really sparkle. Did you put one of these in your mouth while you put your cell phone to your head? Did your drooly infant nephew get some nifty, shiny chewy toys for his birthday? How about that imported pesto that you spread on your pasta, delicious, right? Safe? Probably—for the most part. Why make this assumption? Well, by and large most products are tested and regulated to some degree, and most are quite safe; after all—we’re not dropping dead in the streets. So, by and large, that cell phone for which you spend $200 a month is probably compliant with the electromagnetic radiation hazard protection measures specified by the US government. Right?
But who says? How can a consumer know that a product is safe? Well there really is no way to tell without having it tested formally; and most regulated products are tested at some time—usually once per model or per batch. But what do you know about the labs that do this testing? You’ve probably heard of the some of the big ones; maybe you thought that they were somehow part of a big benevolent government agency charged with protecting the public interest. Nah. Most products on the market in the United States are evaluated by the one of the hundreds of private for-profit laboratories operating in the United States. And for many of them, oversight is performed by an “accreditor” who reviews the operation once a year for a day or a week. While we’ll never return to the horrors documented one hundred years ago by Upton Sinclair, much of the public puts its faith in the network of cost-conscious and competitive “Indie Labs”, many of whom are held by a family whose current owner or founder is a recovering technologist of some sort (engineer, chemist, physician or technician). A large part of this large sector is dominated by the labs that are owned by multinational corporations (the biggest of the big are based in England, France and Germany, by the way).
For the US market, penalties for malfeasance on the part of a laboratory keep most of them toeing the line: loss of customers, loss of reputation, loss of accreditation, and dreaded lawsuits, so lab processes are fairly rigorous and test results traceable, repeatable and responsible. The business of staying in business keeps most laboratory operators keen to keep their processes and data valid and able to withstand challenges, should it come to that.
But did you know that for many product sectors, much of the testing is performed overseas? The next time you visit one of the big-box or mark-down chain outlets, look at the labels on the products on the shelves. The country of origin must be etched into the label of most consumer products. And as the sources of these products move, so does the test infrastructure. The natural progression for a developing world is evolve from cheap resources to cheap manufacturing to outsourced manufacturing to design to research and, ultimately in-country testing. As a country’s level of sophistication rises, so does the transformation from simple economic advantage (read: cheap labor) to creative advantage (read: intellectual property).
What is happening in Asia interesting because the entire maturation process has occurred over the last 20 years (remarkable!). Many highly-sophisticated products are being developed by local designers and assembled from locally-manufactured parts. Whereas outsourcing in years-past came from a US-based corporation (appliance, entertainment, IT manufacturers) and the supply chain was overseen from a stateside locale (with LOTS of audit and quality visits to the foreign manufacturer), in today’s market control has been ceded to the purchasing managers in the distribution chain. The news about lead in toys and antifreeze in toothpaste and melamine in dog food speaks as much to a global market as it does to a blurrying of the sources of the supply of product constituents. Visit China or Vietnam and go to the “plumbing street” or “wiring street” or “concrete sculpture street” and witness the overlap of what must be supply syndicates operating under God-knows-what kind of operating structure. How can a manufacturer assure that the flavor additive they specified for the breath mint is the same L-carvone they saw in the local producer, rather than from the inventory from the factory run by his wife’s cousin? It’s not easy.
Independent Test Laboratories hold part of the solution to this puzzle as proper testing and routine monitoring of goods is a proper first step. Testing follows the product development; products are being tested in foreign labs—at least by labs operated in foreign countries. The question is: how are the laboratories in the developing country faring? The short answer is: Mixed. Obviously, some products are getting to market with some marked deficiencies or outright hazards. And many of these products are faulty after they’ve been approved, which means that someone was incompetent—or cheating. In some sectors it is simply a matter of hitting a public website to find out information on the product: who made it, who tested it, who certified it, etc. It’s a matter of trust that the overseers are doing their job and that the certifiers are handling the complexities of product certification with sufficient competence and integrity.
For example, sufficient confidence in the processes in the US and Europe has led to “Mutual Recognition Agreements” which establish protocols for ensuring test laboratory competence and comparable accreditation processes. However, for the other half of the world, these agreements don’t exist (there are lots of trade, political and other reasons for this). In the electronics sector, from which a majority of the devices are sourced from Asia, with the exception of Singapore and Taiwan, there are no such agreements in place between the US and Asian countries. Hence, devices manufactured in the large producing countries are tested and may be labeled and shipped outside a system that the US public believes is there to protect consumers.
The other part of the solution is effective and balanced government enforcement. While we have built a system of product evaluations based on accreditation, good practice and it is up to the government to have effective enforcement of not only the manufacturers’ adherence to the requirements, but effective oversight of the conformity assessment process.
Finally, at what level should the US public be concerned about this? That is a question that bears some additional examination. But first, care for a breath mint?