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“Fundamental changes” in the way products being imported into the US are inspected are being recommended by the Cabinet-level working group charged by the Bush administration with addressing a rash of safety issues that have cropped up in recent months, according to a story this morning in the New York Times.

The most profound change, the story suggests, is to deal with safety issues before products ever reach the US by building safety mechanisms and testing procedures into points of vulnerability where items are manufactured.

“The group recommended preventing problems by building safety into manufacturing and distribution, intervening when risks were identified and responding quickly after an unsafe product made its way into the country,” the Times writes. “Such risk based approaches have been embraced by private industry and some federal agencies as better and more efficient ways to ensure product safety. The Agriculture Department, for example, uses this approach for meat inspections.”

Critics of the report – which President Bush mandated had to be issued within 60 days of the date on which he created the panel – said that it was long on generalities and short on specifics. Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as well as chairman of the working group, said that more specific recommendations will be made in November, after the public has had a chance to comment on the initial findings.

"One way to think about this is that our current strategy is really a snapshot at the border," the Los Angeles Times quotes Leavitt as saying. "We're recommending a change that would create a video, in essence, through the entire process."
KC's View:
Now, to be fair, I haven't read the report. Just the Times coverage.

But I have to say that the results are simultaneously disappointing and utterly unsurprising. I said back in July that I couldn’t imagine that a group of cabinet secretaries with a lot of other things on their plates would be able to solve the import safety problem in 60 days, and that the whole thing sounded more like a political maneuver than anything else.

If indeed the report says that the best way to import safety problems is to build greater risk-based safety precautions into both manufacturing facilities and distribution procedures…well, I could have told them that back in July.

What Americans want to know, I think, is why this hasn’t been done all along. Why weren’t imported toys being tested to see how much lead was being used in their paint? Why wasn’t imported toothpaste being tested to see what it was made of? How come pet food wasn’t being tested to see what ingredients wee really being used?

And then come the follow-up questions.

Telling the Chinese government, for example, that their manufacturing plants have to meet US safety standards and need to be inspected by us on a regular basis could have political implications, and the US government could have t make some hard choices between such inspections and appeasing a foreign government we need to remain friendly. What will we do in such a case?

And who, ultimately, will have the responsibility? Private enterprise or government? If it is to be the government, what will it cost? Will the Administration and the Congress appropriate the kind of funding necessary to make it work? (This is a government, by the way, that wanted to shut down testing facilities in the interest of efficiency.)

These are extraordinarily complicated issues, and simplistic responses won’t cut it. Ultimately, I can't help but think that pretty much everybody in Washington, regardless of party, hopes that the string of import safety issues subsides and that consumers start worrying about something else.