China talks introduce world of import controls

A toy dog, an electric train and a blond-haired doll would bring smiles to most American homes this Christmas. When the giver is the Chinese government, and the recipients are visiting U.S. trade officials, the meaning is more pointed than simple festive cheer.

"It's a lot of fun. The gift is very nice," said U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez in Beijing Monday, according to state news agency Xinhua, when he accepted a life-size toy dog from the chief of China's product quality watchdog.

Worries about the safety of Chinese imports have defined the booming but often fraught Chinese-U.S. trading relationship in 2007. On Tuesday, during bilateral talks with Gutierrez that she described as "heated," Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi, leader of a nationwide quality-raising campaign, complained that U.S. media had "hyped the product safety issue, causing serious damage to the image of Chinese products and China's national reputation."

Tensions surfaced in the spring, when thousands of American dogs and cats were poisoned by eating pet food made with tainted ingredients imported from China. A subsequent cascade of quality problems has included toxic toothpaste, unsafe tires, chemical-laden seafood and millions of lead-painted toys. On Thursday, Home Depot hd recalled about 64,000 Chinese-made festive figurines because of the lead paint hazard, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

Product safety "engages at a deeper, more visceral level than other issues," said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, who was also in the Chinese capital Monday.

The globalized marketplace, in which the USA imported $2 trillion worth of goods last year, means "you can't inspect your way to product safety. There's just too much of it," Leavitt said. "We are not just scaling up existing processes, we are inventing them."

On Tuesday, Leavitt unveiled what he sees as the new world of import controls. With Chinese counterparts, he signed two "strong and action-oriented" agreements to enhance the safety of food and feed, plus medical devices and drugs, that the USA imports from China.

Leavitt promised the new pacts would "enhance the safety and quality of products that Americans use every day" and "form the framework for agreements that will exist all over the world."

What's new:

•New registration and certification requirements. Chinese exporters of food, feed, medical devices and drugs must register with the Chinese government and achieve certification that they meet U.S. standards.

•Greater information-sharing. Within 24 hours (for drugs and medical devices) or 48 hours (for food and feed) of determining a health risk, each side commits to inform the other and provide necessary tracking information.

•Increased access to production facilities. U.S. officials "will be capacity-building, not just inspecting," Leavitt said, without giving specifics. China has resisted giving U.S. regulators such access in the past.

Feeling confident

Visiting Huiyuan Juice Group in the Beijing suburbs Tuesday, Leavitt promised that the new system, supported by China's growing use of bar codes and tracking systems, "will provide great comfort to American consumers. If there is a problem, they can trace (a bottle of juice) back to the grower who picked it off the tree," he said.

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