Import Safety Group Says US Inspection System Falling Behind, But Offers Few Specifics for Fixing Problems

Federal agencies charged with protecting US consumers from dangerous products have not kept up with a rising tide of imports. As a result, the US inspection system is riddled with too many gaps that allow <"">defective products into the country. Those conclusions came from the Interagency Working Group appointed by President Bush to investigate import safety. The panel also said that inspecting imports at the border was not an effective way to keep unsafe goods from the US market, and recommended a more “risk based” approach for policing such products.

The Interagency Working Group on Import Safety was formed in July after Mattel, Inc. recalled millions of Chinese-made Fisher-Price toys that were manufactured with toxic lead paint. Within five weeks of that recall, Mattel would issue two others for more lead-painted Chinese toys, as well as toys made with dangerous magnets that also came from that country. The Mattel recalls had once again highlighted problems with Chinese imports. This year, toys, tires, toothpaste, pet foods and dozens of other Chinese products were recalled by various US government agencies for dangerous defects.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who heads the panel, said that such recalls are warnings that the current US inspection systems are not keeping pace with a flood of imports. This year, the value of imported goods to the US is expected to reach $2.2 trillion – double what it was in 2000. But despite such increases, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspects less than 1-percent of imports under its oversight. And the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has only 100 inspectors nationwide to check the safety of all goods – including imports – under its jurisdiction. It should come as no surprise that, given such numbers, unsafe imports keeping making their way to store shelves.

The Interagency Working Group said in its preliminary report that the US should stop focusing on catching defective imports at border entry ports – a losing proposition given the small numbers of investigators available to do such inspections. Rather, agencies like the FDA and CPSC should focus on determining what imports are most likely to have defects and focus inspection efforts on those areas. For instance, imported toys from China have been problematic, indicating a need for stronger inspections of those goods. The report also called on agencies to do a better job of sharing information with one another.

The report did not endorse many of the changes proposed by various members of Congress, such as consolidating food inspections under one agency or making it easier for the CPSC and FDA to order mandatory recalls. And the Interagency Working Group mentioned few concrete proposals on how its proposed changes to the US inspection system should be implemented, and it did not recommend any funding mechanisms for a new system. But the Panel is expected to release a more detailed report in November, following a public meeting on import safety in October. Critics of this preliminary report are hoping that the detailed version will provide more specific solutions to the problem of unsafe imports.

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