ROSEMOUNT, Minn. – What's red, white and blue — and made in China? A move is on in state legislatures to ensure that the flags folks will be flying and buying this Independence Day were made on this fruited plain.
Minnesota has passed the strongest measure, a new law that goes into effect at year's end requiring every Old Glory sold in state stores to be domestically produced. Violations are a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.
In Arizona, schools and public colleges were required starting July 1 to outfit every classroom from junior high up with a made-in-the-USA flag. Tennessee requires all U.S. flags bought via state contract to be made here, and similar bills are moving forward in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The Fourth of July is considered peak season for flag sales with millions of them lining parade routes and flying above back yard barbecues.
Most of the major domestic flag makers are privately held companies that don't release their sales figures, so it's difficult to gauge the inroads being made by foreign manufacturers.
The U.S. Census bureau estimates that $5.3 million worth of U.S. flags were imported from other countries in 2006, mostly from China. That figure has been steady over the past few years. The big exception was in 2001 when $51.7 million in U.S. flags were brought into the country, most on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Sandy Van Leiu, chairman of the Flag Manufacturers Association of America, said the imports are cause for concern even though U.S. companies still dominate the flag market.
"That door is going to keep opening," said Van Leiu, a sixth-generation executive at the family owned Annin & Co., a 160-year-old business that supplies retailers like Wal-Mart. "It starts small, then it gets big. You're just opening Pandora's box."
To help consumers identify the origin of their flags, the association created a certification program two years ago that bestows a seal-of-approval logo to flags made with domestic fibers and labor.
Whether Minnesota's law violates international trade agreements — and whether anything would be done about it — is an open question.
Under World Trade Organization standards, the U.S. government can't treat foreign products less favorably than those produced within its boundaries, said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland and the former chief economist for the U.S. International Trade Commission. How the rules apply to states is debatable, he said.
Morici said a foreign business harmed by the law would have to get its government to take action against the U.S. government. Robert Litan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, said while the likelihood of Minnesota's law sparking a dispute is slim, the symbolic message is hard to miss.
"It's symptomatic of an anti-foreign bias moving through the country right now. It would not surprise me if other states copied it," Litan said. "It's hard to oppose politically."
When the bill was debated this spring, some legislators argued it sent the wrong message to close Minnesota's borders to foreign-produced flags.
"That flag should be made throughout the world because it is our message to the world that there is hope for freedom and justice," Republican Rep. Dan Severson said at the time.
The law's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Tom Rukavina, said the flag deserves extra protection. To celebrate his legislative victory, he plans to hand out 1,000 miniature flags at Fourth of July parades in his district.
"The biggest honor that you can give the flag is that it be made by American workers in the United States of America," he said. "Nothing is more embarrassing to me than a plastic flag made in China. This replica of freedom we so respect should be made in this country."
The new law doesn't spell out a penalty for violators. In Minnesota, the default punishment for prohibited acts is a misdemeanor offense, carrying up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.