Homeland Security may watch imports

Plan for bolstering product-safety effort will be presented to Bush for approval

August 18, 2007|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is planning to call in U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to help overwhelmed health inspectors protect Americans from tainted imports of foods, toys and other consumer goods, senior officials said yesterday.

The still-evolving plan, scheduled to be delivered to President Bush in September, also is expected to call for wider deployment of sophisticated technology at the borders, including hand-held scanners that inspectors can use to detect the presence of lead, arsenic and other dangerous substances in a range of products.

And it would emphasize the responsibility of U.S. businesses and foreign governments for ensuring that overseas suppliers meet American safety standards.

Additional details of the administration plan were not available yesterday, and officials said that even if the president approves, it could be months before an "action plan" for federal agencies is developed.

Nonetheless, the strategy would broaden the mission of Customs, now focused on preventing terrorist attacks and deterring smuggling.

The measures come in response to consumer outrage over the seeming ease with which tainted pet food, toys containing lead and other substandard goods have found their way onto U.S. store shelves, and from there, into homes. Consumers are worried about goods from China in particular, but other countries - including Mexico and India - have long-running problems.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, who is coordinating the planning effort, said the government cannot inspect every shipment. The U.S. imports $2 trillion worth of foreign goods, from toys made in China to vegetables from Mexico, and the volume of imports is expected to grow exponentially.

"The option of inspecting everything is eliminated by the scope and vastness of the amount," he said.

Instead, Leavitt and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said U.S. companies must take steps to ensure that their foreign suppliers comply with standards applicable here. Likewise, foreign governments will be told that continued access to the lucrative U.S. market depends on scrupulous adherence to American regulations.

"We must say to those who would import goods into our country ... you need to meet the expectations of quality and safety that American consumers have," Leavitt said.

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