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Measures will bolster consumer protection ; Food, product safety to be hot topic in 2011

It would be understandable if American consumers are feeling vulnerable, given the consumer-protection news headlines in recent years: Recalls of millions of baby cribs and Toyotas. Food-borne contamination outbreaks in eggs, peanut butter and spinach, among other food categories. Then there are concerns over the tracking of our every move on the Internet.

It's no surprise, then, that consumer protection -- keeping people, and especially children, safe -- will be a hot topic in 2011.

The new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, for example, will address such financial topics as credit cards and mortgages.

For industry, many of the changes mean more regulation and potentially more hassle and expense to comply with new rules.

Here are three of the most important consumer-protection developments:

Dangerous products: By March, a dangerous-products database will be made available online by the Consumer Product Safety Commission at SaferProducts.gov.

Why is this a big deal? Currently, consumers have no centralized place to easily research products that might be harmful, whether they own the items already or are thinking of buying them.

"It's so necessary because consumers don't have access to the information they need to make decisions about consumer products," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America.

Ideally, a trip to SaferProducts.gov would become as common as comparing product prices online. "I think it will become part of a consumer's buying process," she said.

The searchable site will contain reports of harmful or potentially harmful products received from consumers, government agencies, health care professionals and others. It will allow consumers to research potentially dangerous products before they are recalled -- before someone may get injured or dies. It also will allow an easy way for consumers to file reports online.

Companies that make the products will have the opportunity to comment on those reports. Most reports will be available online within 15 days of being filed, the CPSC has said.

*Food safety: The Food Safety Modernization Act -- the first major food-regulation overhaul in more than 70 years -- had bipartisan support in Congress but was tripped up late in 2010 because of a procedural goof with the legislation. After nearly being left for dead, the bill was suddenly resurrected and passed Dec. 21.

The new law takes a proactive approach to food safety by trying to prevent dangerous contaminations instead of reacting only when people get sick or die. Most consumers might be shocked to learn the Food and Drug Administration rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.

Each year, 76 million Americans are sickened, 325,000 hospitalized, and 5,000 die from eating contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new law will put in place many safeguards Americans thought they already had, said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for food safety issues at Consumers Union. For example, the FDA will have power to initiate a recall. Under the old law, the FDA had to coax companies to recall contaminated foods, and occasionally they refused.

*Online privacy: As you surf the Internet, websites track your activity and serve up information about you to advertising networks. That's why you might see advertising related to a search you recently completed, for example. You might find that helpful -- or creepy and invasive.

The online marketing industry is attempting to regulate itself over privacy concerns related to online tracking. But government and consumer advocates are frustrated with industry's slow pace.

So the Federal Trade Commission in December issued a report advocating safeguards, including a "do not track" mechanism, that would give consumers the option of keeping their Web surfing private from companies who would track their moves online.

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