Information Falls Short

By Doug Bartholomew  |  Posted 2008-01-09 Print this article Print

Uncle Sam's $3.3 billion system to stop the flood of unsafe imports won't be complete until 2011. Will it be too late?

She might well have said "limited early experience." The fact is that the information available to CPSC staff members via the ACE portal falls short of what they need to do their jobs.

"CPSC will not see the specific kinds of information they want until 2010," says Beth Peterson, president of San Francisco-based Beth Peterson Enterprises and one of two dozen trade industry professionals nationwide asked to help the government define the business needs of the new system. "We need to move more of the transaction information and the transaction processing into ACE from the legacy system."

Peterson says she is worried about ACE's future, given that the project will take three more years and at least an additional $1.5 billion to complete. "I'm very concerned that the cost of the system could put the development of the final system in jeopardy," she explains. "Every year Customs has to take its funding request to Capitol Hill, and while Congress has been supportive, if we stopped development now, we'd only have half a system."

The government eschewed a "big-bang" approach to implementing ACE, Samenfink says, opting instead for a gradual shift to the new platform from the old one. The reason, he says, is that plans for ACE are so large and all-encompassing, including at least a dozen key data elements required for national security and anti-terrorism programs, as well as vast amounts of data for Customs about the contents of each shipment, its manufacturer and the importer.

So far, though, only a fraction of the trade community as well as CBP's own employees and the staff of other federal agencies hungry for ACE data can use the portal. CBP projects a total user base of 26,500 of its own staff, but current CBP users number only 8,000. Likewise, while CBP projects an ultimate user base of 2,500 people in other government agencies, right now just 500 have signed up, the agency reports. Finally, out of a projected user base of 93,000 importers and trade brokers, so far 33,000 have begun using ACE, CBP reports.

Stopping the flow of defective and hazardous products won't be easy. In 2006, about 826,000 companies imported nearly $2 trillion worth of goods into the U.S., including $614 billion worth of consumer products that fall under CPSC's oversight. Despite all the information about the contents of cargo containers that will ultimately be available to CPSC via ACE, the agency's ability to act on it will depend on a close liaison with Customs officers, who will have to enforce their decisions to turn back violative products at the ports of entry.

"It's hard to oversee 15,000 types of products to ensure they are safe," says Donald Mays, senior director of product safety and technology administration for Consumers Union. "CPSC is underfunded and understaffed."

ACE's real benefit may come as a tool for blacklisting manufacturers and importers who fail to fix their unsafe products to meet U.S. safety regulations. "Potentially they could use a watch list to identify cargo from suppliers that have shipped violative products before," Peterson explains. "The government loves to use these kinds of blacklists."

Manufacturers, for their part, are taking steps to try to stay off Uncle Sam's watch lists, with varying success. Mattel, which didn't respond to requests for an interview, lists on its Web site the numerous toys it has recalled, explains the reason for each recall and says the company has instituted a three-point check system to prevent recurrences.

In the final analysis, though, technology can help. "Companies that in seconds can see and track inventory at the SKU level are much better positioned to take on the challenge" of coping with a recall, says Greg Johnson, executive vice president for marketing at GT Nexus, an online shipping portal operator in Alameda, Calif. "But at the end of the day," he adds, "no technology platform is going to do the job of pulling products off shelves and restuffing them into boxes and putting them into containers."

Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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