IMAGE: President George W. Bush
Lawrence Jackson  /  AP
President Bush met with his import safety group Wednesday, in the White House Roosevelt Room, to discuss ways to protect all imports coming into the U.S.
updated 7/19/2007 9:48:04 AM ET 2007-07-19T13:48:04

President Bush on Wednesday established a Cabinet-level panel to recommend how to guarantee the safety of imported food and other products brought into the country and how to police them better.

The White House denied the effort was aimed at China, though the announcement came the same day senators heard testimony from regulators about problems caused by the extremely rapid growth of imports from China.

"It's important for the American people to know their government is on top of this situation and constantly reviewing procedures and practices," Bush said after his first meeting with the Working Group on Import Safety.

A slap at China?
The panel chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt is expected to report its recommendations to the president in 60 days. It will review procedures and regulations and look at safety issues in countries that send goods to the United States.

"This is a serious issue - food safety and consumer safety is a serious issue. We take it seriously," Bush said. "The American people expect their government to work tirelessly to make sure consumer products are safe. And that's precisely what my administration is doing."

Sen. Sherrod Brown said creation of the panel will not address the problem.

"Establishing a product safety panel is like stamping out a single leaf in a forest fire," said Brown, D-Ohio, who called for a broader look at trade issues.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the move was not "a slap at China."

"This is, in fact, a normal piece of business. We get food imports from 150 countries around the world. It's important to monitor them all," Snow told reporters.

Chinese exports to the United States last year were nearly triple the level of just five years ago. Imports of Chinese products into the United States totaled $288 billion while U.S. exports to China totaled $55 billion last year. That means for every $1 in goods the United States sells to China, China sells more than $5 in products to the United States.

China and food safety concerns
Imports of Chinese food, agricultural, and seafood soared to $4.2 billion last year - up from just $880 million in 1996, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The ability of the Food and Drug Administration, part of Health and Human Services, to monitor the safety of food imported from China and other countries has come under sharp criticism. Drug-laced, farmed fish imported from China has been of particular concern.

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Bush took the action as China announced that teams of food safety officials from the U.S. and China would meet in Beijing at the end of the month to discuss the safety of China's seafood exports.

The FDA announced last month that it would detain Chinese catfish and several other categories of fish as well as shrimp and eel after repeated testing turned up contamination with drugs that have not been approved in the United States for use in farmed seafood.

"There is, unfortunately, still a pattern of substandard products that continue to be shipped to the U.S.," Dr. Murray Lumpkin, deputy FDA commissioner for international and special programs, told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday. "Of all the countries in the Asia-Pacific regions, China presents the most diverse set of challenges."

The tiny Consumer Product Safety Commission is also feeling the pressure of Chinese products, including children's products with lead, toys with small moving parts that could cause choking, and other products the CPSC considers unsafe.

"The extraordinary growth of imports has strained the agency's resources," said acting CPSC chairwoman Nancy Nord.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Nord why she wasn't pushing harder for more resources for the CPSC, which has about half the staff it had a quarter-century ago and is still shrinking.

"If Congress gives us more, we will do more," Nord said.

Child Safety
During the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., announced he was introducing a bill with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that would require testing by an independent agency for all imported products and toys aimed at children 5 years of age or younger.

"We can sit here all day and discuss improved methods to recall these toys," said Nelson, who said it's more important to ensure "they don't get here in the first place."

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who chaired the Senate hearing, was skeptical about the president's executive order, saying it was more important to fund existing agencies adequately than to create a study group.

"We need to have oversight of our marketplace," said Pryor. "I don't know if you need another panel looking at this."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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