By  on September 4, 2007

WASHINGTON — The controversy over imports of contaminated Chinese consumer products is spilling over into the apparel area.

Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, said the panel has launched an investigation into the "effectiveness of federal safety standards for children's toys and clothing," in the midst of a firestorm caused by U.S. recalls of contaminated products from China.

Collins said the committee will investigate whether the Consumer Product Safety Commission has "adequate authority and resources" to check the safety of children's toys and clothing manufactured abroad, adding the investigation could lead to "tougher laws on standards or testing to make sure products do not endanger children."

The Senate panel revealed the investigation during the Congressional summer recess and it served as a forewarning that the product safety issue will likely escalate on Capitol Hill when lawmakers return this week. At least one hearing has been scheduled this month and lawmakers have said they will introduce more product safety legislation.

"We want to determine whether the federal government has established adequate safety standards that are applied consistently and effectively to these products, whether manufactured at home or abroad," said Collins.

Apparel importers, whose exposure is significant with $21.6 billion worth of Chinese-made apparel shipped into the U.S. annually, are concerned the Congressional debate could lead to stricter product safety regulations and requirements for all apparel, more scrutiny of cargo containers at ports and the imposition of user fees on companies that import products from China. Apparel importers must already meet strict CPSC standards on flammability and drawstrings.

Until now, the Congressional focus has been primarily concentrated on imported Chinese food and toys, but the Senate panel's investigation extends the oversight into the apparel area for the first time.

"No one quite knows where Congress is going with this," said Julia Hughes, senior vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. "Each day there is some new proposal, so it is really unclear what is going to happen and that is part of what makes companies a little nervous."Hughes defended apparel importers, who have quality controls in place to test for contaminated products. She argued that stronger enforcement is needed, as opposed to new burdensome regulations created in the heat of the political debate.

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