U.S., China to sign import safety pacts: HHS' Leavitt
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expects to sign of pair of agreements with China next week to ensure that food, animal feed, drugs and medical devices the country exports to the United States meet U.S. safety standards, a top Bush administration official said on Monday.
"Early next week, we hope to sign binding memorandums of understanding in the areas of food and feed and devices and drugs," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said in remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"Any country who desires to produce goods for American consumers needs to produce them in accordance with American standards -- American standards of quality, American standards of safety," Leavitt said.
The two agreements follow a series of recalls that have raised concerns about the safety of Chinese goods just as China surpassed Germany this year as the world's top exporter.
China's food exports to the United States have grown rapidly in recent years, with the single biggest category, seafood, more than doubling since 2001 to nearly $1.93 billion in 2006.
U.S. imports of Chinese-made scientific, medical and hospital equipment doubled over the same period to about $1.87 billion in 2006, while imports of Chinese medicinal, dental and pharmaceutical preparations doubled to $676 million.
The United States, a major animal feed producer, imported $195 million worth of animal feed and food grains from China last year, more than six times the 2001 total.
The United States' overall trade deficit with China hit a record $234 billion last year, fueling concerns in Congress about China's trade practices and currency policy.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Acting U.S. Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner are headed to Beijing next week for two separate sets of high level talks.
Gutierrez told reporters after a speech at the Chamber that he and Schwab would be pressing China for "short-term deliverables" in areas ranging from increased market access for U.S. farm goods to stronger protections for intellectual property rights.
The discussions spearheaded by Paulson will focus on longer-term strategic components of "where we see the relationship five, 10 years from now," Gutierrez said.
Leavitt has led the Bush administration's effort to modernize the U.S. import safety system in response to the spate of product recalls from China and other countries.
Chinese officials complain Western media have unfairly exaggerated safety problems, but acknowledge they need to take steps to protect China's reputation, Leavitt said.
"It's very clear to me that they understand that the 'Made in China' brand is very much affected by this," Leavitt said. "I think it is one of the reasons that they have worked aggressively to come to an agreement with us."
China has a robust system for testing drugs and medical devices intended for domestic use, but is less rigorous about products headed into international trade, he said.
China's food inspection process "is substantially more mature than their regulatory system for drugs and devices," Leavitt said.
He did not say when the agreements -- which are still being finalized -- would take effect. But the aim is to make the countries' two different systems compatible, he said.
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham)