Federal Government Boldly Declares: "It Is Impossible To Inspect Our Way To Safety"

Inspections will not keep Americans safe from potentially dangerous foreign imports, according to a Presidential working group representing 12 federal agencies. The working group believes that the sheer number of products arriving at our ports – goods worth $2 trillion, last year – make the development and deployment of an inspection regime impossible. The alternative inspires little confidence.

Heath and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt explains:

We’re recommending the implementation of this strategy in six cross-cutting building blocks. Let me review them for you. The first is, advance a common vision. Let me give you some commentary on that point. There are many different organizations who have specific responsibilities. And in some cases, they have different priorities that need to be melded into one common vision. In other words, rather than just looking at whether the border is secure, we also need to make certain that the products that are crossing them are safe and we can use the same technology in many cases to detect both. So a common vision.

The second is increasing accountability enforcement and deterrence. I talk about prevention with verification. Clearly, we need to have strong enforcement. The third building block is focus on the risks over the life cycle of the imported product. I’ve given you some — that’s basically going from a snapshot to a video.

The fourth — and I’ll dwell on this a little more — is on building interoperable systems. We found that there were data systems that — used by, for example, the FDA, where an FDA inspector would need to have five passwords to get into five different parts of the FDA system. We found that the Customs and Border Protection would have seven different sections of their system, and neither could access data of the other. We found that there were substantial systems being developed among the shippers and the retail and wholesale community, and they were not integrated. So there is a remarkably important opportunity here to create interoperability among systems, so that we can see the life cycle of the product and have much more efficient capacity to track and to screen and to respond.

The fifth building block is a culture of collaboration. This is not a new problem within any federal or public/private enterprise, being able to break down silos. And sixth, promoting technological innovation with new science. We saw many instances where field tests, for example, were useable for inspectors to make on the spot determination, as opposed to needing to take samples and send them to a lab.

The Secretary’s proposal isn’t complete fluff. Yes, federal agencies should use a unified system to share information, a noble goal the Administration and Congress have unsuccessfully pursued since the early ’90s. Even if the CPSC and FDA can speak clearly to Customs, neither have sufficient resources or statutory authority to fulfill their mandate.

The working group’s recommendations can only work in concert with an effective inspection system. It is unreasonable and unaffordable to inspect every item arriving at our ports, but the government should develop a system that both streamlines operations, and holds importers accountable for importing products that comply with our safety laws.

Press Briefing on Import Safety by Heath and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and National Economic Director Al Hubbard [The White House via AP]
(AP Photo/Harry Rosettani)

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