From: Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent
Published September 11, 2007 02:50 PM

Panel Urges "Smarter" Tracking Of Risky Imports

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Bush administration import safety panel urged government agencies on Monday to work together to focus on the riskiest products in a "fundamental change" in import monitoring, following a spate of tainted or unsafe goods from China.


The panel headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told President George W. Bush in a report that inspecting all of the $2 trillion of imports that enter the United States each year would slow international trade and divert attention away from the riskiest products.


"Instead, we have to be smarter about what we do," said the report of the Interagency Working Group on Import Safety.


The report by officials of 12 U.S. government agencies follows months of unsettling discoveries and recalls of unsafe children's toys, chemical-laced toothpaste, and dangerous additives in pet food and seafood -- all from China.


"The recent dangers found in some imported products are warning signs to us. They're warning signs that our present system is not keeping pace," Leavitt told reporters.


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"We need to work with the importing community to change our strategy," he said.


Leavitt said the panel, launched in July, recommended a "fundamental change" in handling imports.


"Instead of a point-in-time assessment at the border, we're recommending a focus on the full import life cycle, building safety into the products that we purchase every step of the way," he said.


Leavitt toured ports, post offices, customs offices and processing plants in 17 U.S. cities in the past two months, identifying weaknesses, as well as areas where private firms and government agencies had put better practices into place.


60-DAY REVIEW PERIOD


The 22-page report identified deficiencies including "siloed systems" -- in which the various federal and state agencies used computers and other automated systems that were not integrated and could not share data.


Leavitt said that the Food and Drug Administration had a system that required an FDA inspector to use five passwords to get into five different parts of the agency's system. He found similar problems in the Customs and Border Protection system.


Key pillars of the new strategy are to ensure U.S. government agencies who share authority over food safety collaborate and use interoperable computers; to boost accountability, enforcement and deterrence; and to promote the use of the newest technologies and science, he said.


The panel recommended that the 2006 Security and Accountability for Every Port Act, which requires that all of the 34 federal agencies with authority over imports build a "single window" check system, be implemented in 2009, two years earlier than planned.


The report -- published at www.importsafety.gov -- will undergo a 60-day review period, including a hearing on October 1 at the Agriculture Department to gather public suggestions.


Leavitt's panel -- which includes officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and other agencies -- will then produce a detailed plan in November.


"Additional resources and authorities may be needed and may be recommended by the Working Group after public input is received," said the report. Leavitt said budgetary and manpower requirements would be addressed in the November plan.


Most of the problematic products have come from China. But Leavitt said his panel did not single out the Chinese, who have a large delegation of officials in Washington for product safety talks that opened on Monday.


Of a projected $2.2 trillion in imports into the United States in 2007, China will account for about $341 billion, second only to Canada, according to U.S. customs data.


© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.


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