Screening of riskiest imports urged

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- A Bush administration task force recommends screening the riskiest imports to prevent the safety problems that have led to recalls of millions of toys, tires and pet foods this year.

The group, in a 22-page report released yesterday, also recommends, as a preventive measure, targeting for closer inspection key weak points in the production and shipment of the $2 trillion worth of clothes, electronics, seafood and other products imported into the United States each year.

"Make no mistake, the recent dangers found in some imported products are warning signs to us," said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, who led the task force.

Leavitt said the changes will probably require additional funding and new powers, such as making consumer product recalls mandatory. It is too early, he said, to provide specifics. The task force expects to provide details in mid-November, after hearing public comment.

Congress intends to hold another hearing on import safety, and Chinese delegations plan to meet with federal officials.

The quality and safety of imports became an issue early this year after Chinese imports of pet food containing tainted melamine injured or killed thousands of cats and dogs. The scare spread to tires and toothpaste. Mattel recently recalled millions of toys made in China that contained unsafe levels of lead paint.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin said he is waiting to see whether the Bush administration backs up its talk about improving import safety with the additional resources that are required.

"Even with risk-based testing, you need more people. Having one inspector from the Consumer Product Safety Commission at the port of Los Angeles is unacceptable," said Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who will hold a hearing tomorrow on toy safety. He has proposed levying import fees to pay for more inspectors.

Leavitt said the recalls have exposed gaps in safety standards and insufficient cooperation among the more than 30 federal agencies that regulate imports. He said the amount of imports is so great and growing so rapidly that increasing inspections without identifying risks wouldn't be sufficient to prevent harm.

The Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and other agencies monitoring the safety of goods should work more closely with Homeland Security offices guarding for security, Leavitt said.

One immediate step the federal government plans to take is moving up the date for connecting agencies' databases tracking the 860,000 shippers and 31 million shipments. By law, the government is required to link the systems by 2011, a deadline the task force changed to 2009.

Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America, praised the task force report for setting goals to improve the safety of imports, but she reserved judgment until detailed plans are revealed.

"It's really the details that are most important," she said.

In particular, the government needs to make sure that companies monitor the quality of the ingredients or parts they use and are able to trace products back to their suppliers, Weintraub said. The government also needs to require independent laboratory testing of goods and increase penalties for violations, she said.

Some government agencies and private companies use the risk-based approach to inspections of certain products that the task force recommends expanding to all imports.

William K. Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner, said the USDA's risk-based program for assuring beef quality has worked well but that the equivalent FDA program for seafood hasn't eliminated food-borne illnesses as much as was hoped.

"The meat program has worked well because that program is well-funded, and they have inspectors in each plant to make sure it's done all the time," said Hubbard, who is leading a coalition of industry, medical and consumer groups lobbying for more FDA funding. "That is the real test."

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