American taking measured steps following China import scares

By Missy Ryan, WASHINGTON, Reuters

As Americans’ concerns grow about food and goods from China, the Bush administration and Congress are taking tentative steps toward ensuring dangerous products are stopped at the border.

Recommendations are due next month on Bush’s desk from a new import safety panel, and lawmakers have already floated a raft of bills aimed at beefing up import oversight, but onlookers doubt far-reaching changes will soon follow.

“The recent concerns about the safety of imported products will result in better funding and better staffing for watchdog agencies,” said Donald Mays, a product safety specialist at the U.S. Consumers Union. The question, he said, is when changes will come and how deep they’ll go.

With each passing week, the list grows of perilous imports, largely from China, ranging from toxic pet food to drug-laced seafood to toothpaste tainted with antifreeze chemicals.

This week, top U.S. toy maker Mattel recalled millions of Chinese-made toys containing lead paint. Some goods under scrutiny suffer from poor design; others are the product of mislabeling or industrial malfeasance.

The Bush administration insists it is not targeting China, a strategic trade partner, and it may be loathe to further complicate ties with a country it is already pushing to revalue its currency and has taken to the world trade court on other trade complaints.

But pressure from U.S. consumers could grow. An overwhelming majority of Americans already voice concerns about buying Chinese goods; only 30 percent of those surveyed in one recent poll professed confidence in food imported from China. Drew Thompson, a China scholar at the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank, sees vulnerability in an export chain fed in part by cottage industries with little accountability. He believes the United States must engage in China’s production system more actively and do more to harmonize safety rules.

In addition to the new panel on import safety, headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, Bush also sent a team to China recently to press for steps such as permission to send U.S. inspectors to Chinese food plants.

But Leavitt acknowledged in a Reuters interview last week that the recommendations his panel will present on Sept. 17 are only the first step in a long term process.

Beijing, meanwhile, has launched its own nationwide campaign to assuage public concerns as it gears up for the Olympics games a year from now. It also is cracking down on unscrupulous firms and points to safeguards already in place.

Yet Sherman Katz, a trade expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, complains that without transparency “it’s hard for rest of world to know whether these claims can be backed up.” Critics say diffuse responsibility, stretched across the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department for food imports and Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies for manufactured goods, is part of the problem. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, two Democratic critics of the administration response, want to see a single food safety agency, but even advocates of their plan admit it’s a long shot.

Lawmakers are also taking steps toward smaller changes, like a new database for food safety problems; Durbin has proposed a new food import fee to help fund more inspections.

“These more marginal changes, they’re hard to oppose. We’re talking about consumer safety here,” said one Senate aide.

Joe Mendelson, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, sees support in both parties, but he’s uncertain the issue will be able to compete with priorities like energy and the Iraq war when Congress returns for business in September. Some onlookers expect more and more recalls as companies take a closer look at their products and suppliers. “Things are going to get worse before they get better,” Mays said.