Inspections Not Enough to Assure Safety of Imports, Bush Told

September 11, 2007

The flow of products imported into the U.S. each year is so vast that simply increasing inspections would not adequately improve safety. Instead, the government should do more to ensure products are safe before they reach the nation’s borders, according to an advisory commission to the president.

President Bush in July established a working group to study import safety. His executive order was in response to growing concerns about a spate of recalls from China that included recalls of toothpaste, dog food and toys.

In its first report to the president, the group said that the government should focus its efforts on prevention. That emphasis will require the federal government to work more closely with the private sector and to improve the sharing of information among federal agencies.

However, the report provided no specifics on what additional resources would be needed. Recommendations on spending and whether agencies will need more regulatory authority will occur in the next 60 days.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the U.S. now focuses on interdiction at the borders to stop unsafe products.

“A fundamental change in our strategy is being recommended,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt said the U.S. now imports about $2 trillion worth of products. He likened the finding of unsafe imports to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack: “Our first job is to shrink the size of the haystack, and we can do that with technology.”

The report recommended moving up a deadline by which 34 federal agencies participate in a computer system for tracking imports and exports. Congress recently required the agencies to participate in such a system by 2011. The working group recommends moving up that date to 2009, Leavitt said.

Some agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, already focus their resources on tracking those products that pose the greatest risk to consumers. Reporters questioned Leavitt about how the group’s recommendations are any different than current practice. Leavitt replied that the group’s recommendations would focus “the entire effort” on those products that pose the greatest risk.

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