We should strengthen consumer protections

 For American consumers, 2007 was an eye-opener. From lead paint on toy trains to pet food with melamine, many of the products we once assumed to be safe were found to pose real threats to our health and safety.

This summer more than 20 million toys manufactured in China were recalled for lead paint and other hazards long after they had reached store shelves. This fall Topps Meat Co. recalled over 20 million pounds of beef because of possible E. coli contamination, then was forced to close its doors, confirming once again that our food safety system is in desperate need of modernization. When the food we eat and the toys our children play with are no longer safe, government must respond.

By failing to fix our own broken system at home and refusing to respond to the challenges of rising imports, this administration seems more focused on improving trade relations than protecting the public. The system has for too long been undermined and mismanaged, and it is hard to believe this country’s leaders have let it go so far — abdicated their public responsibility at the highest levels.

We have seen it elsewhere, beyond our food supply and consumer products, from Iraq to Katrina. Absent any significant oversight, the administration is driven by ideology, weighed down by incompetence, and tangled up in corruption. For too long, many of our federal agencies have been neither fish nor fowl — trying to function as part-time trade protection advocates and part-time guardians of public safety. With an increasingly global economy, that can be dangerous.

For years we have ignored China’s poor food safety record, and our businesses and consumers enjoyed the lower costs that came with its growing role as an exporter of agriculture and seafood products. America last year imported $4.3 billion in food products from China and Hong Kong — nearly three times our 2001 imports.

As chairwoman of the Agriculture-FDA Appropriations Subcommittee, and with a new majority in Congress, I convened a number of oversight hearings on food safety and food imports to hold this administration accountable and make certain our government protects public health, ensures consumer confidence and meets its obligation to its citizens.

Of course, it is not just our food. Today, 86 percent of the toys Americans purchase are imported from China. Almost one-fifth of all consumer products for sale in America today are Chinese-made. These trends demand a new kind of vigilance.

In December, the House passed the Consumer Product Safety Act, important legislation representing a first step forward on product safety, an active response to a new global marketplace and an agency which has failed to take its regulatory responsibilities seriously, an agency which does not understand its regulatory function. We are addressing the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s mandate, and trying to reform it in a meaningful way.

I partnered with Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) to improve the bill and strengthen the mandatory recall provision governing products that pose an imminent hazard. This new authority will allow the CPSC to provide notice and halt distribution without protracted legal proceedings.

I look forward to working through the conference to make the bill stronger still. We must make it clear that states will not be preempted and attorneys general will not be limited when pursuing remedies or penalties. At a time when the number of dangerous products entering our markets is skyrocketing, this is a big problem we need to fix now. We should be bringing more allies to our fight, not fewer. The days of self-policing must come to an end.

Ultimately, however, this goes beyond Congress. To succeed, our work toward reform must influence both the current presidential debate and ongoing public discourse. Whether we are confronting the safety of food on our kitchen table every night or toys we gave our children this holiday season, we cannot afford to wait any longer.

DeLauro is a member of the Appropriations and Budget committees.


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