Testimony of Jean Halloran
Director, Food Policy Initiatives
JOINT HEARING ON IMPORT SAFETY
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON TRADE
SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT
October 4, 2007
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on what has become a serious crisis in import safety. My name is Jean Halloran and I am Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports.
Almost daily, we are hearing new reports of safety problems with imported food, toys, cribs and other consumer products. In the spring, we discovered that pet food imported from China contained wheat flour that was contaminated with melamine. According to one veterinarian website, thousands of pets may have died as a result.1 In June, the FDA put five types of farmed-raised fish and seafood from China under a “detain and test” order, due to repeated findings that the fish contained chemicals banned from seafood in the United States.2
Over the summer, more than 20 million toys manufactured in China were recalled because of lead paint and other hazards, despite the fact that lead paint was banned on toys in the U.S. thirty years ago.3 Just last week, one million cribs made in China were recalled due to design and construction defects that could cause babies to strangle. The cribs are believed responsible for the deaths of two infants.4
This raises the obvious question, how did we get in this situation? Why do we suddenly seem to be inundated with unsafe and substandard products? Many of the most well publicized examples are coming from China, but they are not the only source. In 2003, 555 people became sick and at least 3 died from hepatitis A in green onions imported from Mexico.5 There have also been recalls of millions of pieces of children’s jewelry made in India that contained large amounts of lead.6
We see two causes of the problem. One is that two of the most important federal agencies that the public relies on to ensure that everything in our marketplace is safe—the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission– have not kept up with the globalization of the marketplace. In fact, while new demands on their expertise have arisen, these agencies have experienced budget cutbacks. In addition, Customs and Border Protection, which also plays an extremely important role, is not being utilized in the best possible way to address threats to consumer safety.
The second problem lies with the direction that Congress and the Executive Branch have given to our trade policy, which has largely ignored the problems of unsafe and hazardous imported products. I would like to discuss both of these problems and how we can remedy them.
First, in recent years, imports have skyrocketed, especially from China. The value of all imports increased by 67 percent between 2000 and 2006.7 This has proceeded to such an extent that now 80 percent of all toys sold in the United States are imported from China.8 Likewise, 83 percent of the seafood we eat is imported, 21 percent of that total from China, much of the rest from other developing countries in Asia and Latin America.9 Of all the food we consume, 13 percent is imported.10
While these imports pose new safety challenges to both importers and all regulatory agencies, FDA and CPSC, in particular, have not kept pace with this new challenge. In fact, quite the opposite. Congress has repeatedly cut the budget of the CPSC so that it now has half the number of employees it had when it opened in 1978. It now has 15 inspectors to police the millions of toys and consumer products coming into the country at hundreds of entry points. And, according to the New York Times , it has only one full-time toy tester, named Bob.11
1 Dahlberg, Carrie Peyton, “Vets Survey: Pet Deaths Have Soared” Sacramento Bee, April 10, 2007.
2 FDA News, “FDA Detains Imports of Farm-Raised Chinese Seafood; Products Have Repeatedly Contained Potentially Harmful Residues,” June 28, 2007.
3 Newman, Andrew Adam, “What’s a Parent to Do?” The New York Times, September 29, 2007, p. C1.
4 News from CPSC, “About 1 Million Simplicity Cribs Recalled Due To Failures Resulting in Infant Deaths”, September 21, 2007.
5 V Dato et al., Hepatitis A Outbreak Associated with Green Onions at a Restaurant—Monaca, Pennsylvania, 2003, 52 MMWR 1155-57 (2003)
6 News from CPSC, “CPSC Announces Recall of Metal Toy Jewelry Sold in Vending Machines,” March 1, 2006.
7 Interagency Working Group on Import Safety, Protecting American Consumers Every Step of the Way, September 10, 2007.
8 Wenske, Paul, “Toy recalls fuel criticism of consumer safety agency,” Kansas City Star, August 15, 2007.
9 Food and Water Watch, Import Alert, July 2007, available at www.foodandwaterwatch.org.
10 Bridges, A. “Imported food rarely inspected,” USA Today, April 16, 2007.
11 Lipton, Eric, “Safety Agency Faces Scrutiny Amid Changes”, New York Times, September 2, 2007.