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Product Regulations in the United States: A Beginner’s Guide

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About to import products to the United States, or sell on Amazon.com? Then you must stay on top of the whole spectrum of mandatory safety standards, labeling, documentation and lab testing requirements.

It’s a heavy topic, but one you need to know inside out – or face the risk of having your goods seized by the US customs, getting your Amazon account shut down – or worse (yes, it can get a lot worse than that).

In this beginners guide to US safety standards and regulations, you will learn what every importer and ecommerce seller must know – including safety standards (both mandatory and non-mandatory), labeling requirements, document requirements and lab testing requirements.

Why product compliance is so complicated for US importers

In the European Union, there are mandatory directive and EN standards for hundreds of different products. Some complain that the EU is too heavy handed, and force unnecessary regulation on its member states.

There’s some truth to that, but what if there was no set of mandatory safety standards for most products? What if Importers had to make a complex regulatory assessment of their own (for which most are not qualified), rather than relying on a clear product compliance framework?

Enter the United States.

For many products, even electronics, there are no mandatory safety standards or directives. Instead, it’s up the Importer to make an assessment and apply ‘the necessary standards and procedures” to ensure that the imported products are safe.

Instead, product standards are developed by private organizations such as UL, ASTM and ANSI.

This is ideal, if you know how to make that assessment.

But if you’re just starting out, and don’t happen to have a team of lawyers and engineers by your side, it’s a lot more complicated. That, and much more, will be covered in this guide.

US product regulations for importers

CPSIA

Let’s start with CPSIA.

The CPSIA regulates all children’s products, which are strictly regulated on a federal level in the United States.

As such, the CPSIA provides a clear set of requirements that manufacturers and importers must follow:

a. Safety standards / chemical restrictions: The importer must assess all applicable product safety standards, such as ASTM F 963.

b. Document requirements: The importer must issue a CPC (Children’s Product Certificate) and keep copies available upon request.

c. Labeling requirements: Tracking label, with batch ID and other information, and warning labels must be affixed to the product and its packaging.

d. Lab testing: The products must be submitted for lab testing, and the Importer must be able to produce a test report upon request.

CPSIA sets the bar high, in terms of requirements. However, that is not necessarily making the process more complicated for Importers.

Instead, you have a clear set of requirements to follow, rather than being left out on your own to decide how to manage your risks.

CPSC Product Regulations

The CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) administers mandatory substance bans and restrictions, in addition to a few product regulations you need to be aware of:

a. Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA): Certain types of lightweight fabrics must be compliant with the fire safety criteria set out in FFA.

b. Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA): Restricts hazardous substances (i.e., chemicals and heavy metals) in consumer products, that may cause injury or irritation.

c. CPSC Mandatory Standards and Bans: The CPSC restricts certain substances, either as a complete ban – or for specific uses. The entire list can be found here.

d. General Certificate of Conformity (GCC): Importers must issue a GCC when importing certain product categories. The document is very similar to the CPSIA CPC, and can be found on the CPSC website.

As an Importer, it’s up to you to assess which CPSC regulations and bans apply to your products, and issue a GCC if required. Or, you must just issue one anyway, as that might be faster than trying to make sure whether it’s mandatory or not.

 Are you looking for compliance document samples?

We include a set of compliance document samples, label files and compliance checklists – as part of our Starter Package.

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FCC Electronics Regulations

All ‘radio enabled’ products, must be compliant with FCC regulations, regardless of whether they are ‘intentional radiators’ or ‘unintentional radiators’.

As such, any product that is Bluetooth or WiFi enabled must comply.

In addition, FCC regulations also apply to any device with a processor, operating at 9 kHz or above. As such, even battery powered and USB devices are within the scope of FCC regulations.

In short, if you import electronics, you must comply with FCC regulations.

In addition to your products being ‘technically compliant’ (in the sense that they are manufactured to comply, and can pass a lab test), you must also comply with FCC labeling requirements and documentation requirements.

However, FCC administered regulations don’t cover safety aspects of electronic products.

UL Electronics Standards

Underwriter Laboratories (UL) develop safety and technical standards for electronic products. Compliance with UL standards is, in theory, optional.

However, you are liable for all unsafe products you import to the US, even if there are no mandatory safety standards for that product.

For example, if a charger explodes, you will be forced to issue a product recall – meaning that you have to refund all your customers.

UL standards can help you bridge the gap, to ensure that your products are safe.

In late 2015, Amazon.com required Hoverboard sellers, to provide documents proving UL compliance, or face immediate suspension. As such, UL standards compliance is ‘de facto’ mandatory when importing electronics to the United States.

That said, the UL certification process is costly, often counted in the thousands of dollars.

As if that was not enough, far from all manufacturers in Asia are able to ensure compliance with UL standards – so you better do a background check before you submit product samples to UL.

Note: UL is not the only organization developing electronics standards for the US market. For example, SGS have their own ‘North America compliance mark’. That said, UL is still the most common standard on the market.

California Proposition 65

CA Prop 65 restricts more than 800 substances, in consumer products for both children and adults. CA Prop 65 gives you two options:

Option 1: Submit your product/s for CA Prop 65 testing, and obtain a test report (to prove that your product is compliant).

Option 2: Affix a warning label on the product, that may look something like this:

 WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

Well, that one will surely not be an easy sell….

CA Prop 65 is only mandatory if you are based in, or sell to customers in, California. However, many Importers based in other states still choose to submit their products for CA Prop 65 testing.

Technical Bulletin (TB) 117

TB 117 is a California furniture fire safety law, requiring that upholstered furniture undergo compliance testing according to the fire safety criteria.

Textiles Labeling

When importing apparel and other textile products to the US, importers must ensure that the products are labeled correctly.

This may, for example, include the following information:

  • Fiber composition (i.e., 100% Cotton)
  • ASTM Care Labels
  • Care instructions

Country of Origin Labeling

All products imported and sold in the United States must carry a country of origin label (i.e., Made in China).

The country of original must be clearly visible on the product and its packaging.

There are, however, some exceptions to this rule.

Watches,for example, are not labeled according to the origin of the ‘assembly country’ (which for the most part is China), but the origin of the movement.

As such, most watches are labeled as ‘Japanese Movement’ or ‘Swiss Movement’, or even ‘Made in Japan’.

Are you looking for product and packaging label samples?

We include a set of compliance document samples, label files and compliance checklists – as part of our Starter Package.

Click here to find out more

“Is lab testing mandatory in the United States?”

Third party lab testing is not mandatory for most products. That being said, you are responsible for ensuring that all imported products are safe – and the only way to be sure is by submitting batch samples for compliance testing, before shipment.

But that’s not the only reason.

Even in the cases when there’s no mandatory testing requirement in place, the customs, the CPSC or other agencies can require that you prove that your product is compliant.

And, if something would go wrong, you want to be able to show that you have done everything you can to make sure that your product is safe.

Then there are also marketplaces like Amazon.com, who set their requirements. If they want a test report, or other compliance document, you better be able to deliver.

If anything, they are not going to relax their requirements.

“Do I need to get my products tested in the US?”

No, you generally don’t have to submit your product to a US based lab. Many accredited compliance testing companies have facilities in Mainland China and Hong Kong S.A.R.

“What can happen if I fail to comply with US product standards and regulations?”

For most products, you need to comply with more than one set of regulations. For example, when you import electronic children’s products, you need to comply with the following:

  • CPSIA
  • FCC part 15
  • UL (‘De facto’ mandatory)
  • CA Prop 65 (Recommended)
  • Country of Origin Labeling

Failing to comply with one regulation, be it a label or a document, renders the product as non-compliant.

Yes, even if the product is technically compliant, and you have managed to tick off all other requirements.

So, what can happen if you fail to comply?

It depends on how serious the ‘violation’ is. If only a matter of a missing label, you may get a second chance to relabel the goods.

That’s expensive, but better than having your new products sent for immediate destruction.

But, if you import products that are technically non-compliant, in the sense that they don’t comply with FCC or chemical regulations, there’s nothing you can do.

If this is discovered by the authorities (and they may ask for documentation at any time), you must issue an immediate product recall.

For most startups and small businesses, that means financial ruin.

But it gets worse.

What if a charger you’ve imported burns down a house or two? Or worse, what if it kills those inside?

These things happen, and it’s you (not the supplier), that will be held liable.

“How do I find out which regulations apply to my product?”

We know how hard it can be to get a grip on product safety standards, labeling, documents and lab testing. To help startups get a grip on the process, and avoid crippling fines and forced product recalls – we created the Starter Package:

a. An overview of product safety standards in the United States, Europe, Australia & more

b. Mandatory document sample files

c. Product labeling template files

d. Checklists that guide you step-by-step through the entire compliance process

In addition, you can also book quality inspections, lab testing and shipping directly from the platform. Click here to learn more.

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