Schumer calls for stepped up safety monitoring of Chinese imports
Political reaction to potentially unsafe products from China is ratcheting up in the United States, with New York Sen. Charles Schumer Sunday calling for more inspection of foreign goods and the creation of an “import czar” to monitor consumer and food products from nation’s third-largest market.
Schumer revealed that about 100 shipments of Chinese goods have been blocked this year by the Food and Drug Administration after reaching the Port of New York and New Jersey due to safety and contamination concerns. Inspectors rejected the shipments because food was “filthy” and unfit for human consumption and for veterinary drug residue that could cause drug resistance to antibiotics or cancer in humans.
The news comes in the wake of recent recalls and concerns about the safety of poor quality or adulterated tires, farm-raised fish, pet food, toothpaste and toys with lead paint produced in China.
The Democrat senator said the U.S. system for protecting consumers from dangerous products is broken and needs to be fixed.
“There is no question that too many Chinese manufacturers and food producers put the bottom line ahead of safety. The FDA and other agencies regulating the safety of imported goods need to do much more to address this worsening crisis. We need stricter standards, more thorough inspections, and harsher penalties for Chinese companies and American shippers that turn a blind eye to safety,' Schumer said in a statement.
Chinese products have constituted 60 percent of the 178 recalls issued this year by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Schumer said an import czar is necessary to coordinate monitoring of goods because jurisdiction over product quality runs through multiple agencies, including the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which last recalled more than 1 million defective tires sold through a small New Jersey importer called Foreign Tire Sales.
Last week, the CPSC initiated recalls of 68,000 folding chairs that unexpectedly collapse and injure users; 2,300 toy barbecue grills sold at Target stores that have sharp edges; and 1.2 million ceramic space heaters that pose a fire hazard due to faulty power cords. All the goods were made in China.
Of the 26 recalls of products for lead hazards this year, 89 percent of the 8 million items were manufactured in China.
Since 2004, imports of Chinese agricultural goods have doubled. In addition, one-third of the world’s vitamin A now comes from China, along with much of the supply of vitamin B-12 and many health food supplements. Earlier this year, lead-contaminated multivitamins showed up on the shelves of U.S. retailers.
Schumer said the FDA does not have the resources to properly check the food supply coming across the border. The agency normally inspects only 1 percent of all food and food ingredients at U.S. borders and tests only about 0.5 percent. In the past year, the FDA rejected more than twice as many food shipments from China as from all other countries combined. He criticized FDA plans to close nearly half of its 13 food-testing labs.
Tristar Food Wholesale, located in Jersey City, N.J., in June recalled Chinese made Ferrari Chocolate that was sold throughout the New York area because it contains undeclared peanuts and aflatoxins in excess of the FDA's limits. Aflatoxins are known carcinogens.
Schumer said that federal oversight of imported goods for safety is compromised because they are subject to a “maze” of rules, regulations and protocols from at least a half-dozen agencies.
An import czar at the Commerce Department would focus on coordinating and monitoring the efforts of agencies charged with consumer safety related to imports. The czar would issue a public report on existing gaps in federal safeguards on imported products and agencies would have to report back within six months on their progress in correcting any problems.
Similarly, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is pushing for the creation of a new agency to oversee all food inspections — which are now divided between the FDA, Department of Agriculture and other agencies.
Schumer’s five-point plan for import protection also calls for new labeling standards, overhauling FDA foreign food inspection procedures, mandating overseas inspections for other agencies, and more rigid food safety requirements.
In a letter to the FDA, Schumer asked the agency to immediately implement new rules requiring all food, vitamin and cosmetic companies to list the country of origin for all non-U.S. ingredients. Current country-of-origin labeling requirements apply to food, but not food ingredients such as apple juice, garlic powder and cocoa butter.
Schumer said the current FDA practice of announcing most inspections on foreign manufacturing facilities weeks in advance allows slipshod operations to cover up any faults. He urged the FDA to stop giving Chinese manufacturers prior notice of inspections and to collect sample products when on site.
The senator also urged the CPSC and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to mandate overseas inspections of foreign facilities and conduct spot checks to keep Chinese producers in line with U.S. requirements.
In May, Schumer co-sponsored an amendment that establishes an early warning and notification system for contaminated food, creates a system of fines for companies that don't report contaminated food products in a timely matter, and improves the inspections and monitoring of imported food. The amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 94-0.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that many U.S. food producers and retailers are stepping up their quality control reviews of Chinese suppliers, including conducting more unannounced inspections, voluntarily pulling products from store shelves, testing for potential contaminants that they previously did not look for and developing lists of alternative suppliers.