Imports pose increasing threat to consumers
Published: Tuesday, June 5th, 2007
Our support for free trade doesn’t come without caveats — including, obviously, that reasonable safeguards exist to prevent foreign trading partners from dumping unsafe or fraudulent products on the U.S. market. Accurate and honest country-of-origin labeling also is crucial, so consumers can make educated choices. Increased U.S. trade with China is generally beneficial, in our view, but evidence that the Chinese may be exporting substandard or dangerous products to the United States understandably raises public alarm, threatening to undermine a potentially fruitful relationship. If the Chinese don’t exercise more quality control over the products they export to the U.S., and the U.S. doesn’t monitor the situation more closely, a public backlash could deal trade between the two countries a major blow. Americans became more acutely aware of a problem when pet food products made with melamine imported from China were pulled from store shelves. Then we read about Chinese toothpaste turning up in Central America and the Caribbean, mislabeled to hide the presence of a potentially harmful chemical. A Washington Post review of Food and Drug Administration documents found that inspectors regularly see Chinese imports that are mislabeled, or made with chemicals, preservatives or antibiotics that are more carefully controlled in the United States. Imports rejected by the U.S. sometimes reportedly make their way to other countries, potentially endangering the health of unsuspecting consumers there. Representatives of the American wood products industry last week told members of Congress that Chinese plywood imports, made with allegedly hazardous glues and from illegally or irresponsibly harvested trees, were threatening to put them out of business. U.S. companies also complain of false labeling on Chinese products, designed to fool inspectors and get around U.S. tariffs. As The Associated Press reported, “Customs agents are sampling Chinese hardwood plywood and, based on complaints from manufacturers and findings from an earlier investigation of flooring, expect to find much of it mislabeled to avoid tariffs, said Vera Adams, executive director of commercial targeting and enforcement for the U.S. customs agency. An investigation into wood flooring from China found 120 manufacturers were mislabeling or misrepresenting their products, resulting in $30 million in lost tariffs, Adams said.” We don’t decry the loss of tariffs, because use of such protectionist measures demonstrates that, when it comes to truly “free trade,” the U.S. has its own work to do. But we fully support a U.S. crackdown on fraudulent or misleading product labeling designed to hide the presence of potentially dangerous ingredients or banned materials. This clearly is an unacceptable situation, which can only lend credence to interests or industries that want to exploit the situation to discredit free trade agreements or erect protectionist barriers to foreign competition. United States officials and trade representatives have responsibility for strengthening safeguards and reminding China that this isn’t a dumping ground for substandard or dangerous products. But it’s the Chinese who must sooner or later recognize that their economy and credibility as a trading partner will suffer if they don’t correct the problem. Even if the Chinese have no qualms about passing off unsafe consumer products on their own people, the United States and other trading partners rightly insist on higher standards. A failure to recognize this bespeaks an insufferable arrogance or amazing blindness on China’s part, which can’t help but fray already tenuous trading ties.
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