Panel Recommends Safety Guidelines for Imported Food, Toys

The federal government will be increasing safety regulation on imports following a string of recalls over lead contamination in food, toys and other items manufactured in China, according to a preliminary report by a panel led by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Levitt.

The report outlines short- and long-term recommendations for improving safety of imports entering the U.S., and gives more oversight power to the Food and Drug Administration.

Click here to see the panel’s report

“This will require shifting from reliance on 'snapshots' at the border to interdict unsafe products, to a cost-effective, prevention-focused 'video' model that identifies and targets those critical points in the import life cycle where the risk of unsafe products is greatest and verifies the safety of products at those important phases,” said Levitt in the report. “Such a risk-based, prevention-focused model will help ensure that safety is built into products before they reach our borders.”

According to the panel's recommendations, the FDA could require manufacturers and importers of high risk products to take steps to prevent contamination and other problems during transport; and gives the FDA the authority to bar imports and mandate recalls if the agency is denied access to production records.

The panel was created by President Bush in July to help ensure products entering the country are safe, and includes members from 12 different U.S. import agencies.

Under the new rules the Consumer Products Safety Commission could order companies to conduct more tests to make sure products comply with safety rules, and boost penalties for all violators. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security may require higher bonds by importers.

The new rules would also make it easier for agencies and U.S. trade partners to share data.

Dr. Todd Bania, a medical toxicologist at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York, said that while the cases of lead poisoning have decreased in the U.S., improved guidelines for inspection and testing will help ensure that fewer products with harmful amounts of lead enter the country.

"I deal with patients and treat lead toxicity and cannot imagine this not helping," said Bania. "Parents are worried about toys. Do they have lead? Is my child exposed? In this country, they’ve done an excellent job in screening people for lead. The amount of people with lead toxicity is decreasing, so it’s very rare, but imports are a backdoor way of lead getting into the home.”

However, Dr. Bania says that the safety measures for imports should go beyond lead-monitoring, particularly when it comes to supplements and medications.

“There are other chemicals that could be toxic,” Bania said. "We’ve seen it a lot in herbal supplements and medications. Now it’s in children’s playpens. There are other contaminants and heavy metals that we should be worrying about in addition to lead.”