Panel Urges More Scrutiny Over Imports

Mike Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, meets with President Bush and Vice President Cheney on import safety. Recent product recalls, Leavitt says, are
Mike Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, meets with President Bush and Vice President Cheney on import safety. Recent product recalls, Leavitt says, are "warning signs that our present system is not keeping pace." (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The country's import-safety system has not kept pace with an increase in foreign goods, a panel appointed by President Bush said yesterday. Federal agencies should do a better job of coordinating oversight, the panel said, though it stopped short of calling for a single agency to oversee imports.

The Interagency Working Group on Import Safety was formed in July after Mattel recalled millions of toys made in China that contained lead-based paint, and reports surfaced of tainted food and toothpaste from China. The "recent dangers found in some imported products are warning signs to us," said Mike Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, who led the 12-member panel. "They're warning signs that our present system is not keeping pace."

The value of goods imported by the United States has doubled since fiscal 2000, to an estimated $2.2 trillion this year, the report said. The value of goods from China, which is the second-largest exporter to the United States after Canada, is expected to reach $341 billion this year, up almost 25 percent from last year.

Despite the increase, the Food and Drug Administration inspects less than 1 percent of goods under its jurisdiction, while the Consumer Product Safety Commission has fewer than 100 inspectors and investigators nationwide. The FDA oversees the import of seafood, fruits and vegetables, and the CPSC oversees consumer products, such as toys and clothing.

The preliminary report submitted to Bush recommends that federal agencies focus on risky imports rather than on random testing. It also calls on agencies to do a better job sharing information with one another, but it drew criticism for failing to address whether agencies need more resources. The panel also was criticized for offering few concrete proposals.

"I am concerned that today's report on import safety is long on platitudes and short on specifics," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.)

While it is encouraging that the panel acknowledged problems with the safety system, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said, the panel's members "are still too tentative when it comes to real reform. . . . I am disappointed that they have not faced the resource question head-on."

Among the weaknesses in the system, the report noted that retailers can legally sell items included in a voluntary recall and there are insufficient resources to "prosecute or pursue civil enforcement action against all wrongdoers." The CPSC should be given the power to outlaw the sale of voluntarily recalled products and strategic prosecutions could improve deterrence, the report said.

"The changing import environment demands a new approach to import safety, a risk-based preventative approach that is more comprehensive, collaborative, and technologically-enhanced, and that stresses accountability," the report says.

The panel did not address the potential cost of any changes, though Leavitt said "there will be significant parts of this that require new resources." The panel is to submit a more detailed plan in November after holding a public meeting in October, he said.

The report also fell short of advocating many of the sweeping changes being called for in Congress, including consolidating the disjointed oversight food system under a single agency, charging some importers a fee to offset the cost of more inspections, creating an import czar who would oversee safety efforts throughout government, or making it easier for the CPSC or the FDA to issue mandatory recalls.

"We're just encouraged that the government is holding meetings, but nothing in here forces manufacturers to do a better job making sure the products they sell comply with the law," said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, a public interest group.

Two panel members, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, defended the report. "EPA has a history of preventing and reducing the risks of illegal imports, and this report will help us make the message clear: America will not tolerate the importation of harmful products or goods," Johnson said in a statement.

The report came as Walt Disney Co. announced that it would begin random safety testing of its licensed products at retailers throughout the country, including Wal-Mart and Toys R Us. Disney's announcement follows Mattel's recalls this summer of Chinese-made products with more than a permissible amount of lead, classified as anything more than 0.06 percent.

Disney plans to spend "several million dollars" to hire an outside firm to conduct tests and to hire staff members to oversee the program, company spokesman Gary Foster said. Disney also plans to require manufacturers to submit safety plans, he said. The company would work with manufacturers and alert the CPSC if any problems were found.

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