By  on July 17, 2007

WASHINGTON — Product safety oversight is getting more scrutiny from Congress after the discovery of contaminated imports from China and could spill over into regulations and requirements for apparel importers.

The importers are also concerned that the heightened attention on product safety may add to the broader pressure in Congress to rein in imports from China, which includes potential legislation on Chinese currency policy and unfair trade practices. Domestic textile producers welcomed the latest developments, arguing that the existing U.S. inspection system is inadequate and creates an unfair advantage for foreign producers that are not held to the same product safety standards as U.S. manufacturers.

The renewed Congressional focus on Chinese imports, which came after the U.S. crackdown on contaminated food products from China over the past three months, will be underscored in a series of hearings on Capitol Hill this week and in legislation addressing the issues.

The Congressional debate has been heating up since the Food and Drug Administration in April discovered that dogs and cats in North America had been poisoned by tainted Chinese pet food ingredients, which was followed by more U.S. investigations that turned up potentially harmful chemicals in Chinese products, ranging from toothpaste to seafood.

Although the firestorm in Congress is primarily concentrated on Chinese imported food and agriculture products, apparel importers and retailers are worried that the evolving debate could lead to stricter product safety regulations and more onerous requirements, such as imposing user fees on companies that import products from China.

"We support efforts to ensure vigorous enforcement of U.S. health and safety regulations and laws, but we don't want to be made the scapegoat and have the burden placed on us to do what the government should be doing," said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation. "[Congress] could do mandates that require retailers to undertake more active scrutiny of suppliers in a way that would be very difficult and expensive to comply with, and secondly, they could impose fees on importers to pay for this enforcement effort."

Importers don't have to look far to see what is ahead in Congress.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) introduced a bill Friday that targets imports of Chinese food products and the power of the FDA, but could easily be broadened to include other product categories and agencies as the debate evolves. Their bill would mandate that foreign imports meet the same or better standards than those of the U.S.; give the FDA authority to approve and disapprove countries eligible to import; establish a certification system for foreign governments or food companies seeking to import food to the U.S., and require the FDA to collect user fees on imported food products, with the revenues being used for inspection and food safety research.Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) recently outlined a five-point plan that calls for beefing up federal safety protections, including creating an "import czar" at the Commerce Department to oversee matters involving consumer protection, an overhaul of the FDA food inspections and mandating overseas inspections for other agencies.

Schumer pointed to three recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in June, including 5,300 units of earrings sold at Kmart coated in lead paint, as well as 100 New York-bound shipments of Chinese goods that had to be blocked after reaching the Port of New York this year because of safety and contamination concerns.

"The fact that every week we have to frantically pull Chinese goods off store shelves shows that our safeguards are failing," Schumer said in a statement.

Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said the CPSC already has several regulations in place governing product safety standards for apparel and textiles, as well as a "fairly robust recall system."

"We go through recalls all of the time in this industry," Lamar said. "People understand the rules and the way to check for the rules and if they think they've got a product in the supply chain that shouldn't be there, they yank it."

Lamar said his organization has spent much time working to ensure that product safety rules for clothing, footwear and textiles are transparent and based on sound science. The CPSC's regulations range from standards for the flammability of apparel and specifications on children's wear.

U.S. producers contend that the agencies charged with regulating safety and health standards are underfunded and lack the resources to inspect shipments.

"From my perspective, it was clear long before any of this took place that the U.S. government does not have a game plan or a mind-set to deal with this problem of contaminated goods entering the U.S. market," said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition and a former deputy assistant secretary for textiles and apparel at Commerce.

Tantillo said he raised an issue of concern to textile producers — high levels of formaldehyde in imported textile products — with several agencies more than a year ago but was unsuccessful in urging the officials to take action."Our industry works under enormous constraints associated with keeping contaminants out of their products, but it is obvious that the importing community and manufacturers overseas who access the U.S. market are not held to the same standards simply because the U.S. government does not have the resources to address this problem," Tantillo said.

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