WASHINGTON — Amid pressure from Congress, President Bush established an import product task force on Wednesday to recommend steps to ensure the safety of food and consumer goods shipped into the U.S. and to step up enforcement efforts.

What began as a firestorm over the safety of imported Chinese food and agriculture products has broadened to include the safety of all imported consumer items. Apparel importers are concerned that the debate could lead to stricter product safety regulations and requirements, such as imposing user fees on companies that import products from China. Domestic textile producers welcome the new 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 task force will be chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and will include Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr., Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.

Bush said the panel, which must report back to him in 60 days, will focus on existing safety enforcement procedures and regulations to determine if they need to be revamped. "We'll be working with companies that import goods from around the world to make sure that their practices meet the high standards that we set for the United States," he said.

The working group will review relationships with foreign governments and manufacturers regarding their inspection and certification of exports, and determine whether additional initiatives should be launched.

Another area of inquiry will be the steps U.S. importers have taken to enhance the safety of imported products, including identifying "best practices" in their selection of foreign manufacturers, inspection of production facilities and goods before export or distribution in the U.S., and safeguarding the supply chain.

Bush created the task force on the same day a Senate panel questioned the heads of several regulatory agencies about inadequate resources after the discoveries of contaminated imported food and consumer products from China.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have turned up the pressure on the Bush administration, holding oversight hearings to investigate why so many contaminated products are entering the U.S. market and to find ways to step up enforcement. Lawmakers have also begun to introduce bills targeting food and product safety standards and enforcement.Nancy Nord, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates the safety of clothing, footwear and textiles, told the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee on Wednesday that surges of Chinese imports "have strained the agency's resources and challenge us to find new ways to work to ensure the safety of imported products that enter the stream of commerce."

Nord said the share of all U.S. imports of consumer products from China increased 300 percent from 1997 through 2004, noting that two-thirds of all U.S. product recalls are of imported products and the majority of those are made in China. She also cited a 2007 study that revealed $614 billion worth of imported consumer products fall under her agency's jurisdiction and the value of imported consumer products from China accounted for $246 billion of that total.

Nord made recommendations to Congress this week to revise her agency's statutes and give officials more tools to enforce product safety standards. They include prohibiting the sale to a consumer of a recalled product after the date of a public announcement and increasing civil and criminal penalties.

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