HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
September 10, 2007, Herald Journal

Funky fish and toxic toys

By IVAN RACONTEUR

Americans will cheerfully line up to buy products laced with toxic chemicals and seafood raised in untreated sewage – as long as the price is right.

At least this is the impression that manufacturers in countries such as China seem to be getting.

There was a time when quality mattered in this country. “American craftsmanship” and “Yankee ingenuity” provided us with some of the finest products in the world.

Over the decades, though, our lust for cheap goods began to change the landscape.

Jobs were lost as manufacturing was outsourced to other countries.

Today, consumers continue to ignore the obvious questions about why the imports are so cheap.

Evidently, we don’t mind sweatshops or inhumane working conditions, as long as we are not the ones forced to work under these conditions.

Another reason imports cost less is that foreign manufacturers are not governed by the same regulations that domestic manufacturers must follow.

The focus for many unscrupulous companies is quick profits, not quality products. The design of their products, and the materials used to make them, reflect this.

When problems with shoddy imported goods are identified, consumers express shock and outrage, and wonder how this could happen.

A better question would be to ask why more people haven’t been hurt or killed by these products.

We need to understand that if an item seems unbelievably inexpensive, it is not because the manufacturer is a benevolent martyr, it is because he has cut corners to reduce the price.

We have some odd standards when it comes to what is important.

Some people require home inspections and recoil in horror if lead paint was used on a house at any time in its history, but think nothing of buying trinkets that are essentially lead-coated lollipops for their kids, just because they are cheap.

The range of goods that have been subject to recent recalls is extensive.

From toxic toothpaste, to pathogenic pet food, to faulty foreign tires, to tainted toys, regulators have been scrambling to recall the flood of dangerous goods that have been foisted on the American public.

This is a classic example of trying to bolt the barn door after the horse has legged it. By the time the pernicious products are in the hands of consumers, it is already too late.

Naive citizens wonder how these goods find their way into this country. They assume that because an item is sold here, it must be safe.

This can be a fatal assumption.

The sheer volume of goods flowing into this country – about $2 trillion worth in 2006 – makes it impossible to inspect every item.

Add to this a bumbling bureaucracy, where no less than six separate agencies who do not communicate with one another are charged with ensuring product safety, and you have a system that is doomed from the start.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently proposed the brilliant idea that private companies – the very people who profit from cheap imported goods – be given a greater role in product inspections.

Absurd as this is, Chertoff may be a genius compared to the latest candidate for King of the Clueless, Federal Reserve Chairman William Poole, who said safety worries must not be allowed to create barriers for trade.

“My concern is that certain groups will attempt to use concerns over safety and job loss to restrict imports and thereby pursue and agenda of economic isolation in an increasingly globalized world,” Poole said.

If you will excuse my use of the vernacular – Duh!

Anyone with an ounce of common sense will absolutely use concerns over safety and job loss to restrict trade, and will continue to do so until the situation is corrected. Anyone who opposes this is due for a cranial examination at an early date.

We need to make sure that foreign products and ingredients are safe before they reach our store shelves.

The Associated Press recently reported that one out of four shipments of frozen catfish, shrimp and eel imported from China swims by FDA inspectors unchecked. That is a lot of funky fish, when one considers that the US imported more than one billion pounds of seafood from China last year.

Currently, the FDA inspects only one percent of food imports that enter this country, and tests only about half of one percent.

It is not too difficult to see how dangerous goods can slip through the net.

America is supposed to be an agricultural powerhouse, and yet, food imports from China continue to increase at an alarming rate.

In a move that only a bureaucrat can understand, the FDA’s response to this is to contemplate closing half of its 13 food-testing labs.

The regulations that we do have favor the supplier, not the consumer.

Under current law, if the Consumer Products Safety Commission wants to make negative comments about a brand name product, it must give the company 30 days to challenge the comments, and then must negotiate any recall with the manufacturer.

We need to streamline the system, and change the focus to safety rather than profits.

We need to level the playing field by implementing stricter regulations and more inspections of foreign goods. It will be easier for US companies to compete if everyone in the marketplace is subject to the same rules.

This will cost money, and the cost should be borne not by taxpayers, but by the companies who wish to import foreign goods into this country, and the companies that manufacture these goods.

US Senator Charles Schumer recently announced that he plans to introduce legislation to address the problems with imports.

Schumer wants to change the way the FDA conducts foreign food inspections. Currently, the FDA announces most inspections of foreign manufacturing facilities weeks in advance.

Apparently, the FDA hasn’t figured out that this might just allow unscrupulous companies to clean up their act before inspectors arrive.

Schumer also co-sponsored an amendment proposed by US Senator Dick Durbin that would implement more rigid food safety standards.

We need to educate consumers about the real cost of the goods they buy.

Cheap products are not inexpensive. We just pay for them in different ways.

In an upside-down economy where the US is choking on a trade deficit in excess of $600 billion, we need to stop worrying about hurting the feelings of retailers and foreign manufacturers, and start worrying about our own safety and economic survival.

Face it, the people involved in dumping these pernicious products on unsuspecting consumers are not losing any sleep worrying about us.