Dec. 19, 2007 -- The Bush administration's top health official says the Chinese government is taking seriously U.S. concerns about unsafe food, toys, and other exports.
"I know they have the message," said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, who returned this week from a trip to China. Leavitt was there negotiating the opening rounds of a deal designed to crack down on lingering safety problems in food and other products pouring from China into the U.S.
Leavitt told reporters in Washington that the Chinese government is willing to open up its food industry to more transparency and to track its consumer product producers more closely.
The agreement, which is still in outline form, also allows U.S. inspectors into Chinese plants and distribution centers involved in exports "on a notice or a without-notice basis," Leavitt said.
"But they've got a long way to go, and they know it," he said.
Last month the Bush administration released a 50-point proposal designed to update U.S. standards for tracking and inspecting imports.
The report comes on the heels of a year of safety problems plaguing both foreign and domestic companies. The problems included tainted pet food, toothpaste, and lead-contaminated toys, all from China. In June, the U.S. government also slapped an import ban on five species of farmed fish imported from China because of concerns the fish could contain trace amounts of drugs and unsafe additives.
The report asks Congress to increase maximum fines on rogue consumer products producers from $1.8 million to $10 million. It also seeks to give priority status to foreign companies that agree to meet U.S. safety standards before shipping products overseas.
Leavitt played down the chances that agreements with China and a new strategy from the Bush administration will quickly guarantee the safety of the nearly $2 trillion-per-year import industry.
"There's no one report, no one agreement that will solve this problem," he said.
The administration's plan met with skepticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee in charge of food safety, calls the plan inadequate because it relies too much on voluntary regulation by companies.
"I think that those days are over and they can't self-police," DeLauro tells WebMD. "We continue to put our lives in the hands of industry."
The House on Wednesday passed a bill tightening toy safety standards and increasing the power of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate the industry. The Senate has not yet acted on the bill.