Committee Approves Fix to Avoid Merchandise Seizure
By J. Craig Shearman
Washington Retail Insight
June 7, 2012
A House committee today approved legislation intended to keep the government from unfairly seizing a wide range of retail merchandise and other products covered under a controversial federal law governing the use of imported wood and plant products.
H.R. 3210, the Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness Act, or RELIEF Act, passed the House Natural Resources Committee 25-19 and now heads to the House floor.
“It has become clear that the current law has resulted in several unintended consequences and needs to provide better clarity as to the legal responsibilities of those subject to the law,” NRF Senior Vice President for Government Relations David French said in a letter to committee members. “The RELIEF Act, as amended, would effectively address these problems without compromising effective enforcement.”
The legislation would amend the Lacey Act, a century-old environmental law originally directed at illicit trade in threatened and endangered animals. Congress expanded the law in 2008 to ban trade in products containing illegally harvested wood or plant material. The changes require importers to document the genus, species and country of harvest of any wood or plant material contained in an imported product.
The Justice Department considers merchandise containing illegally harvested material to be contraband, possession of which can result in fines, imprisonment, and seizure and forfeiture of the goods. But NRF has argued that the scope of foreign laws and regulations that could result in a violation is too vague, and that it can be virtually impossible to trace all the wood and plant content in many manufactured products, making effective compliance and enforcement of the law extremely challenging.
The otherwise obscure law received attention last year when federal agents raided a guitar factory in Tennessee and seized millions of dollars worth of instruments containing hardwood allegedly illegally exported from India. The raid has prompted concern among not only retailers selling obvious wooden products like furniture or musical instruments but clothing with wooden buttons or even lipstick made with resins derived from wood.
An IKEA executive testified before the committee on behalf of NRF last month, and NRF worked with committee members to help develop the legislation passed today. The legislation would allow importers who have done proper due diligence to ensure their products contain no illegally harvested material to petition a court for return of any merchandise seized under the law. It would also specify that products made with material harvested before 2008 are exempt under the law, clarify the scope of foreign laws covered to those directed at the conservation and preservation of trees and plants, and address problems with the import declaration requirement.
© 2012 National Retail Federation
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