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.

Juice was rarely found in China just 20 years ago. Today, Huiyuan, China's largest juicemaker, is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and exports $10 million worth of goods to the USA each year, including the kids-oriented BellyWashers and TummyTickler brands sold at Wal-Mart wmt and 7-Eleven stores, export manager Rainbow Wang said.

"American parents can feel confident buying our products, as we have a strict quality system and monitor 100 critical points throughout the production process," Wang said.

Mass campaigns

Poisonous pet food sparked this year's burning debate about cheap, low-quality goods shipped from China.

"There will be no more problems with pet food," promised Li Chunfeng, deputy head of China's import and export food-safety bureau, on Tuesday.

One-party states are generally adept at crackdowns. China has been busier than ever this year with a series of old-style campaigns to assuage both foreign critics and domestic concern. The key initiative came in August, when Vice Premier Wu began a four-month "special battle" to improve the quality of goods and food safety.

The campaign has mobilized hundreds of thousands of inspectors, distributed millions of brochures and delivered success, said Wei Chuanzhong, deputy minister of quality supervision. "This has been the biggest campaign to improve product quality in the history of (China)," Wei said.

Highlights include shutting down 47,000 illegal food factories and confiscating 500 tons of highly poisonous pesticides, according to ministry figures.

"American consumers can trust made-in-China products. The problems with melamine-laced pet food were caused by only a few companies, and we have tackled this through the new food and feed agreement with the USA and also by our own campaign these last few months," Li said.

Despite the government's claims, U.S. retailers should still be cautious, visit their suppliers frequently and help them improve their ability to guarantee the sources of all raw materials, suggested Liu Kaiming, head of The Institute of Contemporary Observation in south China's Shenzhen City.

"There are too many factories in China. Quality is a long-term problem and cannot be solved in just four months," said Liu, who is concerned that many Chinese firms lack the "concept of quality control and the habit of observing the law."

On Wednesday, the Chinese and U.S. governments begin their third Strategic Economic Dialogue, designed to bring the two sides closer together on key issues such as the value of the yuan, China's currency, which Washington believes is deliberately undervalued to favor Chinese exporters.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who is chairing the talks for the U.S. side, has said that product safety will be a key agenda item during the talks near Beijing.