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U.S. Working With China On Product Safety

Worries about quality of Chinese exports to the U.S. have become a major feature of trade ties, with substandard food and lead-tainted toys among recurring safety scares.

BEIJING (AP) -- The United States and China said Tuesday that they are working to strengthen measures to ensure products imported into the U.S. are safe β€” a daunting task that will take a huge commitment from Beijing to work.

The announcement of the new product safety initiative comes a day before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration opens the first of its three offices in China and its first outside the United States.

Worries about the quality of Chinese exports to America have become a major feature of bilateral trade ties, with substandard Chinese food and toxin-laced toothpaste among product safety scares this past year.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said a new strategy was needed because the United States imported $2 trillion worth of goods this year, equal to four times the size of Brazil's economy.

"When one sees the enormity of that, it becomes clear you cannot inspect everything," he said at a news conference after a product safety workshop with Chinese officials. "We have to change our strategy from one of simple inspections at the border. We have to build quality into every product in every step of the process."

The first FDA office will be opened Wednesday in Beijing, followed by one in Guangzhou and another in Shanghai. They will be followed by offices in India and Latin America by the end of the year as the FDA tries to globalize its presence.

The staffers will inspect local facilities, provide guidance on U.S. quality standards, and eventually train local experts to conduct inspections on behalf of the FDA.

"We are embarking on a system that will recognize the need to ensure that everything that comes to the U.S. has been subject to either heightened scrutiny by our regulators or has been certified as meeting our standards by someone we trust," Leavitt said.

China's health minister, Chen Zhu, characterized Tuesday's meeting as "not only candid but frank."

Leavitt and the agency's Food and Drug Commissioner, Andrew von Eschenbach, said the new measures would include better technology for detecting contamination, greater demands for corporate responsibility and increased sharing of information.

"We are going to work across the entire life cycle of these products ... to really take a multi-pronged approach to be able to assure the quality and safety of these food products from the very beginning of production to the point where they are consumed," von Eschenbach said.

Experts say the FDA's presence may help solve some problems but the impetus still has to come from China.

The FDA offices "can't hurt but it also can't do very much unless the Chinese want change and cooperate to make that happen," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, who has consulted for the FDA.

In the past year, China has increased inspections and tightened restrictions on food production and other industries, particularly exports, after tainted cough syrup, a contaminated pet food ingredient and toys with lead paint were found in global markets.

The stricter measures have also been imposed at home, where Chinese consumers have been alarmed by ongoing food and drug scandals. Most recently, dairy products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine have been blamed in the deaths of at least three babies. Tens of thousands of other children were sickened.

Chen, the minister, said the Chinese government should not only work speedily and be open when a product safety crisis arises, but people should be treated quickly and businesses should release information on problematic products and recall them voluntarily.

Still, it's an uphill battle for China to regulate its countless small and illegally run operations, which are often blamed for introducing chemicals and food additives into the murky food chain.

Also Tuesday, Beijing urged Washington to lift restrictions U.S. health officials have imposed on imported foods from China, insisting that Chinese authorities have taken effective measures to improve food safety standards.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it regretted the move by the FDA last week to order dozens of imported foods from China held at the border. Most are ethnic treats, including snacks, drinks and chocolates.

Qin Gang, a ministry spokesman, said Chinese quality inspection officials strictly examine exported products to ensure they meet the standards of importing countries.

It is unusual for the U.S. agency to put such a broad hold on goods from an entire country, not just a few rogue manufacturers.