U.S. Alters Strategy with China on Product Safety; Opens China Offices

November 19, 2008

The United States said this week that it has embarked on a new strategy with China to ensure that products imported into the U.S. are safe.

Worries about the quality of Chinese exports to the U.S. have become a major feature of bilateral trade ties, with substandard Chinese food and toys covered in lead paint among the recurring product safety scares.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, speaking on the eve of opening of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration office in Beijing, said a new strategy was needed because the United States imported $2 trillion worth of goods a year, equal to four times the size of the Brazilian economy.

“When one sees the enormity of that, it becomes clear you cannot inspect everything … we have to change our strategy from one of simple inspections at the border. We have to build quality into every product in every step of the process,” he told a news conference.

The FDA office will be the first outside the United States and will be followed by two more in China this month and another one in India next month.

“We are embarking on a system that will recognize the need to ensure that everything that comes to the U.S. has been subject to either heightened scrutiny by our regulators or has been certified as meeting our standards by someone we trust,” Leavitt said. He gave no further details.

His comments came as China urged Washington to lift restrictions U.S. health officials have imposed on imported foods from China, insisting Beijing has taken effective measures to improve food safety standards since it was hit by a recent tainted milk scandal.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it regretted the move by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last Thursday to order dozens of imported foods from China held at the border. Most are ethnic treats, including snacks, drinks and chocolates.

Qin Gang, a ministry spokesman, said Chinese quality inspection authorities strictly examine exported products to ensure they meet the standards of importing countries.

“We hope the U.S. side will take seriously China’s major concerns because what they are doing now will impact on our trade. We hope the U.S. will lift the restriction sooner than later,” Qin told a regular news briefing.

It is unusual for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to put such a broad hold on goods from an entire country, not just a few rogue manufacturers.

Last Thursday’s order, which covers products made with milk, is a precaution to keep out foods contaminated with melamine, the industrial chemical found in dairy products that sickened more than 50,000 children with kidney problems and was blamed in the deaths of at least four infants in China’s most recent food scandal.

Under the directive, FDA inspectors at U.S. ports of entry will detain foods from China made with milk and other dairy ingredients. Importers must pay to have their products tested by an independent laboratory that meets FDA standards. Only products found to be melamine-free will be allowed into the country.

Melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer, is said to have been added to watered-down milk by dairy suppliers in China to dupe quality control tests and make the product appear rich in protein. The practice became known after the Beijing Olympics this summer.

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