The United States expects to have food and drug inspectors placed in three Chinese cities by the end of this year, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Tuesday.

However, the head of the Chinese agency in charge of guaranteeing safety and quality control said the issue had not been totally resolved because U.S. authorities have not given permission to allow Chinese food and drug inspectors in the United States.

The issue of food and product safety has been highlighted over the past year by a string of high-profile recalls of various Chinese products, from tainted toothpaste to toys with lead paint and defective tires.

Leavitt, participating in two days of high-level economic discussions with Chinese officials, told reporters that the Chinese government had given approval for plans to allow U.S. food and drug inspectors in three Chinese cities — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. He said the inspectors should be in place "soon," which he defined as before the end of the year. He said the plans involved placing nine to 12 U.S. inspectors in offices in each of the three cities.

Li Changjiang, head of the Chinese agency that oversees quality control, said that while there were plans to allow U.S. inspectors to operate in the three cities, the agreement had not been completed because of the need to get U.S. approval to increase Chinese inspectors in the United States.

"The relevant U.S. authorities are still following through, and we have yet to receive the go-ahead" for the Chinese inspectors in the United States, Li speaking through an interpreter, said at a separate briefing.