Liveblogging The Senate Commerce Committee Hearing On The Chinese Poison Train

Join us at 10 am as we liveblog the progress of the Senate Commerce Committee’s China-bashing posse. Though common sense, and a report from the New York Times, shows that the U.S. imports tainted goods from several countries, the committee, and its smorgasbord of panelists, will only discuss the problems plaguing goods from China.

Five agencies will share their experiences jumping in front of the Chinese Poison Train: the National Highway Safety Institute (tire recall,) the National Marine Fisheries Service (fish recall,) the Consumer Product Safety Commission (Thomas the Poison Train recall,) and of course, the Food and Drug Administration. Several consumer advocacy groups will testify, including Consumers Union, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Enterprise Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers, former home of former CPSC Chair nominee Michael Baroody.

Keep hitting refresh as we liveblog the latest calls for reform sprinkled liberally with (apparently) xenophobic fear-mongering!
(Photo: AsiaNews)

09:57: There are two feeds: an audio feed from, and a video feed from the Senate Commerce Committee.
10:05: Coverage begins momentarily… maybe their Chinese-made cameras broke?
10:07: Here we go!

10:08: There is a procedural issue due to last night’s late-night session. This is why you don’t have all-nighters before big hearings. The hearing will not be “official,” but they will still hear testimony from witnesses.
10:10: Two minutes in, and there are already calls to modernize the CPSC – good, though the problem is not just with the CPSC. And modernizing is not the same as providing the necessary funding.
10:12: Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is making an opening statement. The Senator usually rails against China for stealing our Ohio’s jobs.
10:14: Senator Brown’s gravely voice remains us of Tom Waits. A folk song about Chinese exports would not be inappropriate.
10:15: The Senator hit the nail on the head. The administration’s funding strategy is “free trade on the cheap.” Brown wants the FDA to have the power to throw the gauntlet before countries and exporters that don’t meet U.S. standards.
10:17: That was fast, Brown is done. This is a well-attended hearing. Senators will each have two minutes to make opening statements.
10:18: Bill Nelson “I want to focus on the toys.” Yay, he has a chart! We love Senators with charts.
10:19: Thommy the train? Thomas, Senator. Thomas.
10:20: Nelson wants to end self-certification, will introduce legislation today to require independent verification.
10:20: Onto David Vitter (R-LA), who admitted recently to patronizing DC whores. He worries about food safety, catfish in particular.
10:21: Vitter wants to require testing for seafood and agrees that the FDA needs to have more power. Bipartisan agreement already.
10:23: Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). “Thomas train set.” Senators, please, it’s “Thomas The Train!” “Thomas The Poison Train” will also be accepted.
10:24: This is great; the Committee seems very aware that our regulatory agencies are neutered and powerless. Klobuchar: “The CPSC today is a shadow of its former self.” Still remaining to be seen, whether they will do anything about it.
10:26: Panel time.
10:27: Starting with Nancy Nason of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who isn’t sure that her mic works. “Am I on? I don’t know!”
10:28: 46% of tires are now imported, compared to ten years ago when imports accounted for 19%.
10:29: China is now the leading country of origin for imported tires, accounting for 23% of tires on our vehicles.
10:31: They get complaints from “consumers who are not shy… (anxious pause) we get calls, we get emails….” Good work, Consumerists!
10:31: Foreign Tire Sales, the New Jersey company that imported 450,000 defective tires, originally didn’t want to pay for the recall until the NHTSA sent in the lawyers to lay the smack down.
10:32: Time for Nancy Nord of the CPSC. She clearly practiced her testimony. She’s reading slowly, clearly, taking the time to e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-e.
10:33: She has a four part plan of action!
10:34: The CPSC works with China as part of: “The China Program.” There are four working groups:

  • Electrical Products
  • Toys
  • Cigarette Lighters
  • Fireworks

Who would have guessed that cigarette lighters and fireworks merit their own bilateral working group?
10:35: There will be a U.S.-Sino meeting this year that will soon present the agreements from those four working groups.
10:36: Second prong, they have safety seminars with Chinese manufacturers. They even sent one (1) staffer to China to meet with Chinese manufacturers.
10:36: Third prong, increased surveilance and enforcement activity. Last year they announced the highest number of recalls, almost half involving Chinese goods. What she isn’t saying is that the recalls are voluntary, and that the CPSC can’t impose a recall without a company’s consent.
10:37: Fourth prong, more power! For more, see this post.
10:38: Murray Lumpkin of the FDA is now testifying. If the U.S. was China, he’s the guy we would execute.
10:39: We are to blame, us, with our insatiable desire for strawberries in the winter.
10:40: Did he just mention organized crime? Is the mob behind the Chinese Poison Train?
10:41: Neither the FDA nor the CPSC think we can solve quality problems away from our shores. This is not the strategy used by, say, the Department of Homeland Security.
10:43: Aw, the hearing may take a break. The Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wants all Senators in their chairs by 11am for a vote. If they behave, they might return by 11:15 am. ‘Till then, onto William Hogarth of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, who has a very, very thick southern accent.
10:44: We imported 1 billion pounds of seafood from China. That’s a lot of fish.
10:45: Rather than discuss the problem, Hogarth is merely describing the offices NOAA has in place to prevent tainted fish from hitting the market.
10:47: They are in love with a fee-for-service model, where companies pay NOAA for testing services. We can see how companies might not be as enthusiastic.
10:48: Hogarth in a sentence: “We need to work together to provide seafood for the healthfullness of our citizens.”
10:50: Second panel. Odd, Senators usually question the first panel before moving onto the second. What’s the point of having an oversight hearing where the panelists only offer opening statements? That’s not oversight. That’s a book group.
10:51: Donald Mays of the Consumers Union wants us to go abroad and stop tainted exports before they leave the country of origin. If we don’t fight the products there, we’ll end up fighting them here. See, they think food safety is a national security issue worthy of a national security response.
10:52: Eight point plan of action:
10:53: More resources for federal agencies. What have we been saying throughout the hearing?
10:53: Pre-shipment testing of exports that holds manufactures and exporters accountable for the quality of their products. Sing it, brother!
10:54 Chair: “I know you have six more points to make, but we have to get to the other witnesses.” What’s wrong Chairman? Opening statement too hot to handle?
10:56: All the witnesses have visited China and are talking from first-hand experience. We have to wonder though, if everyone has seen the effectiveness of testing, which factories did they visit? Were these the white-gloved tours China saves for foreign observers? Because they don’t sound like the Times’ experience breaking into RC2’s factory.
10:58: Jay Timmons of the National Association of Manufactures.
10:59: It’s all the fault of counterfeiters. One “poor company” (can’t make that up) had their good name tarnished by evil Chinese counterfeiters.
11:00: It is China’s responsibility to come up with an effective regulatory regime, but manufactures and U.S. companies are responsible…. which is why we should be wary of unbranded products. Is he serious?
11:02: Mr. Chairman, it’s 11:02. Senator Reid wanted you in your chair two minutes ago, and we don’t see a late pass!
11:03: The meeting will recess for 15 minutes, but we’re not going anywhere. How’s the hearing going so far? What do you want the Senators to ask when they return? Tell us in the comments.
11:07: For anyone interested in the other six points from Consumers Union, their full testimony is available here.
11:12: Several themes have already emerged:

  • Agencies want more power, funds;
  • Advocacy groups want agencies to have more power, funds;
  • Agencies think we can deal with tainted exports on American shores, while advocacy groups think we need to address the problem from within foreign countries;
  • Nobody thinks the problem is isolated to China.
  • The schism between the agencies and the advocacy groups is particularly interesting. Expect the Senators to question both about their competing views when they return.
    11:20: This is a long 15-minute break.
    11:27: Senator Reid is still talking about the war on C-SPAN2.
    11:32: Reid is done. Maybe now our Committee can sneak out? Maybe they left the Committee door unlocked, or the stove on? *hint hint*
    11:37: And we’re back, with Klobuchar, like a 16-year-old permit-holder, in the driver’s seat. “This is very exciting for me, and I’m sure for you.”
    11:38: The Committee sent a list of questions to the CPSC and set a deadline that already passed. The CPSC’s response? Don’t worry, we’re working on it.
    11:39: Klobuchar wants to know why the CPSC hasn’t asked for more money in their budget request. The CPSC: “if we had more resources, we would do more.”
    11:40: Haha, Klobuchar points out that China is “executing their commissioners.” Nord looks worried.
    11:41: What a sad answer. The CPSC wants to stay focused, and presented a detailed budget request. Yet the Senate is offering them more money! Just take the money and run! If you don’t, Nancy Nord, you can’t hide behind funding shortfalls when the next incident strikes.
    11:43: The CPSC doesn’t want the power to impose mandatory recalls, which would result in fewer recalls overall. Klobuchar: “But wouldn’t that give you leverage?!”
    11:45: The CPSC wants to focus on certification, which in our opinion, is no substitute for the ability to impose mandatory recalls.
    11:46: Nord doesn’t know if the White House is working on a new CPSC nominee.
    11:48: Very nice frame from Klobuchar: “Safety is not protectionism.”
    11:48: Finally, Senator Stevens is talking. We will be amused, even if he says nothing interesting.
    11:50: Stevens wants to know if traditional Chinese medicines taint Chinese fish. NOAA’s answer: not really. If they find unauthorized chemicals, “we will detain that product.”
    11:52: Stevens: “Ms. Nord, you just cover consumers. Do you cover fish?” -laughter-
    Nord: “No.”
    Stevens: “I love fish, I’ll handle it for you.” -more laughter-
    11:57: The FDA can only stop fish at our borders that look odd or adulterated.
    11:59: Stevens has a good point. Country of origin labeling doesn’t address whether food is fresh, wild, or farm-raised. The FDA only says that the products can’t be mislabeled.
    12:01: Another recess! More votes?!
    12:02: They will return shortly, this time with Senator Pryor (D-AR) as the Chair.
    12:19: The Committee kept the 15-minute-break to 19 minutes.
    12:20: Senator Pryor is Chairing the meeting.
    12:20: Nancy Nord of the CPSC wants to have a full slate of commissioners by September so they can get back to work – but not before enjoying Labor Day.
    12:22: Nord is out there lobbying for new powers. She met privately with Senator Pryor yesterday.
    12:27: The CPSC places the responsibility to spread information about recalls with manufacturers, but they have a “drive to 1 million!” where they want 1 million people to sign up to receive recall notifications through emails. Help them meet their goal here.
    12:28: Neat tidbit: the CPSC has staff that trolls the internet looking to buy recalled products. Sounds like a fun job.
    12:29: Pryor is digging into the CPSC’s three-step rule-making process. The CPSC, by statute, can’t write their own rule if a widely accepted voluntary rule already exists. This is a giant loophole that lets the industry write their own loose rules to evade strict regulation from the CPSC.
    12:33: Pryor is now focusing on coordination between with the FDA and other agencies. Inter-agency coordination is all the post 9/11 rage, and the FDA has plenty of it at the staff and executive levels.
    12:37: Pryor: we can track the source of food, right?
    FDA: We can track food from with manufacturers here, elsewhere, not so much.
    Pryor: I’m interested in the elsewhere.
    12:38: According to the FDA, there is a renewed interest from the Chinese FDA to track down rogue manufacturers.
    12:39: The FDA agrees with the CPSC that internet retailers are a weakness, since most internet retailers have no idea that they may be selling a recalled product.
    12:40: More questions about catfish. Southern catfish may come from China, where it is raised in sewage and chemicals. Pryor: “How can we inform consumers about what they are buying?”
    12:43: Back to tires. Pryor wants to know how they were marked, which we initially misheard as “marketed.”
    12:44: According to, Nicole Nason of NHTSA, all tires have tags like VIN numbers. As with branded and unbranded clothes, tire factories serve several companies that each have different specifications, making it difficult to identify which brand came from which plant.
    12:49: Pryor point blank: Do you need additional resources?
    12:50: NHTSA: The process worked.
    12:52: The largest tire makers have insurance to handle recalls, the problem is getting the smaller companies to follow the law.
    12:53: Pryor stops in the middle of thanking the first panel, which prompts Nason to ask “are we not thanked?” Onto the second panel “for a few minutes.”
    12:57: The future sounds awesome. Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest envisions a future where consumers can hold a barcode to their phone and receive a product’s source information. Snazzy!
    1:02: The National Association of Manufacturers just said that the FDA and CPSC need more resources! Did we hear that wrong? What is wrong with these agencies if even the groups they regulate want them to have more resources?
    01:04: Tsk tsk, Consumers Union. They think larger manufacturers can better handle recalls by stopping products at the register. Our experience proves otherwise.
    The hearing is over.
    Well that was certainly informative. Though China clearly needs to reform their regulatory agencies, the U.S. too, still has much work to do. We find it amazing that the FDA, which inspects less than 1% of all imports, can testify that they do not need more resources; or that the CPSC can so lightly the dismiss the power to institute mandatory recalls. If our own agencies are not willing to step-up and do their jobs, how can we ask China’s agencies to do the same?

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