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After recalls, federal plan to target tainted imports

August 18, 2007|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is planning to call in customs officers to help overwhelmed health inspectors protect Americans from tainted imports of food, toys and other consumer goods, senior officials said Friday, describing a new strategy for dealing with compromised products.

The evolving plan, to be delivered to President Bush next month by a task force he appointed, also is expected to call for wider deployment of sophisticated technology at entry points. Inspectors would use hand-held scanners to detect the presence of lead, arsenic and other dangerous substances in a range of products.

The plan would emphasize the responsibility of U.S. businesses and foreign governments for ensuring that suppliers abroad met American safety standards.

Even if the president approves it, an "action plan" for federal agencies could take months to develop, officials said.

The strategy would broaden the mission of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is now focused on preventing terrorism and deterring smuggling.

The plan is a response to consumer outrage over the seeming ease with which tainted pet food, toys containing lead, and other substandard goods have found their way into U.S. stores and homes. Consumers are worried about goods from China in particular, but other countries, including Mexico and India, have long-term problems.

The U.S. imports $2 trillion worth of foreign goods, and the volume is expected to grow exponentially.

"The option of inspecting everything is eliminated by the scope and vastness of the amount," said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who is coordinating the planning.

Instead, Leavitt and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, U.S. companies must take steps to ensure that their foreign suppliers comply with U.S. standards. Foreign governments will be told that continued access to the lucrative U.S. market depends on scrupulous adherence to American consumer-protection regulations, the officials said.

"We must say to those who would import goods into our country. . . you need to meet the expectations of quality and safety that American consumers have," Leavitt said.

In recent months, the list of tainted goods from China has grown beyond pet food to include bulk food ingredients, toothpaste, automobile tires and some kinds of fish. This week, Mattel announced a recall of millions of toys made in China because of worries about lead paint and design problems.

With consumer concerns mounting in the spring and early summer, Bush announced a month ago that he had created the import task force.

Critics say the administration's emerging strategy appears to overlook the need to boost the ranks of Food and Drug Administration import inspectors, and they question whether new responsibilities would divert customs from its core mission of stopping terrorists, drug smugglers and tax evaders.

"The customs guys are not trained to analyze a toy for lead, or food for contamination," said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner now active in a coalition seeking a major increase in the agency budget.

"I personally don't think there is much [customs inspectors] can do without reordering their priorities and retraining them," he added. "And then you are going to leave the country vulnerable to the things customs is looking for now: drugs, illegal revenue, or a dirty bomb."

Chertoff disagreed: "These missions complement each other." Searching out tainted consumer goods will make the border a more difficult target for terrorists and smugglers, he explained.

"Threats don't necessarily come with a label," he said, pointing out that a shipment of food could also conceal a terrorist weapon.

Two years ago, Leavitt oversaw another administration effort to confront an emerging health threat: bird flu. The president proposed a $7-billion preparedness plan that was largely embraced by Congress.

This time, however, Leavitt has been reluctant to talk about funding increases.

Asked whether the plan would call for hiring more FDA inspectors, he said: "Nothing has been foreclosed."

Consumer groups maintain that years of federal budget cutting, and the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have diminished the reach and effectiveness of safety agencies.

"Government watchdog agencies are woefully underfunded and understaffed, and won't be able to handle the onslaught of unsafe products filtering into our country," said Donald Mays, a product safety expert with Consumers Union.

An unusual coalition of consumer and industry groups has been calling for big increases to the FDA budget. The agency's foods budget, about $450 million a year, should be doubled, said former senior official Hubbard. About 450 FDA inspectors are assigned to import duties and must cover everything from fruits and vegetables to cosmetics and prescription drugs, he said.

Customs and Border Protection has about 18,000 officers screening people and goods at airports, borders and seaports.

"The thing you have to do is strengthen the FDA, because they are the designated protector," said Hubbard.

"But because regulation is so antithetical to this administration, they will try to come up with some sort of free-market approach, and I don't know that it will work."

In a related development Friday, the FDA, under congressional pressure, canceled plans to close more than half of the labs it uses to test foods, medicines and other products.

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