WASHINGTON — Commerce officials have enlisted the help of Energy Department researchers to develop a "marker system" that would trace whether apparel imports from countries participating in preferential trade programs contain U.S. yarn and fabric, as required in some laws.

Commerce will fund the fledgling initiative, which is aimed at curbing illegal transshipments, particularly from the Caribbean Basin. This area has been one of the domestic textile industry’s top lobbying points.

Commerce announced the launch of the study, with findings expected within a month, just days before the congressional elections, where textile issues are key in many close races in battleground states, such as North Carolina. GOP candidate Elizabeth Dole has even been campaigning on the issue of developing textile "tracers" to curb transshipments for several months.

Commerce has pledged to allocate $60,000 to the 30-day project, according to a Commerce official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The official also denied the announcement is politically motivated.

"This has been in the works for a long time. It is one more part of a long-term effort," she said, adding that the interagency task force was formed in January to deal with such issues.

The Bush administration created the interagency task force, dubbed the Textile Working Group, to help the flagging domestic textile industry, a move that fulfilled political promises made to lawmakers from textile-producing states.

"We’re bringing in the best and brightest in technology research and development to help us crack down on cheaters and make sure the laws on the books are enforced," Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said in a statement.

Seven House lawmakers, including Rep. Sue Myrick (R., N.C.) and Rep. John Spratt (D., S.C.), are endorsing the research and have invited industry trade and lobbying groups to attend a demonstration at the Department of Agriculture Cotton Quality Research Station in Clemson, S.C., on Nov. 8. In the letter to industry trade groups, lawmakers said the USDA has spent several months developing a cost-effective, nontoxic method of tagging domestically produced yarn and fabric.

Mike Hubbard, executive vice president of the American Yarn Spinners Association, said his group first approached the USDA about the concept. "We told them we wanted to put something on yarn that makes it traceable, but does not alter the property of the fibers," Hubbard said. "We also said it can’t be toxic and it has to be very cheap."Hubbard said his association envisions the next step involving the development of technology, such as hand-held detectors the Customs Service can use to trace apparel imported into the U.S. He said USDA researchers indicated that with proper funding the markers could be developed and implemented in 18 months.

Hubbard acknowledged that obtaining congressional funding will be an uphill battle. While Congress has agreed that more than $9 million should be spent on textile and apparel transshipments to add more inspectors, lawmakers have yet to give this project funds.

Charles Bremer, vice president of international trade at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, claimed that "large quantities of Asian yarn are going into the Caribbean" and are being used illegally in the preferential programs. "Something has to be done to properly police preferential trade agreements."

Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said: "There is some merit to the idea. We want to look at the entire picture before we decide whether it is a good idea."

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