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)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Cowboys_fan says:

    If they are admittedly useless, then drop the department altogether.

  2. hawk205 says:

    What a terrible press conference. My appreciation of reporters has gone up. If they can extract any useful information from the stream of consciousness dribble. It’s right up there with FEMA nonsense.
    It’s so impressive that the secretary saw inspections Wow! Maybe some in depth interviews with inspectors would have helped.
    Lastly, any software person knows “Testing shows the presence of bugs not their absence”. Quality has to be included in every step.
    Does the secretary seriously believe foreign exporters will add to their costs by instituting serious QA if they can get aawy with not doing it.

  3. NickRB says:

    And I of

  4. NickRB says:

    and I often see the consumerist pointing out that we need more government regulations? We need less government. Hire a private company inspect. In fact hire several so they have to compete against each other. Nothing improves quality like competition.

  5. bohemian says:

    There was a discussion about the CPSC on NPR last week. They said they are operating out of a 1950’s era building that would not pass a code inspection.

    Bush’s goal was to kill off all of these types of agencies so business could do whatever they wanted. Well we have seen what businesses will do if they can get away with it. NO, we need more inspection and we also need a system for consumers to sue importers (like Mattel) for damages. Selling someone a lead tainted baby toy should be punishable even if no physical damage happened to the baby. Said company still violated the business relationship of selling what was assumed a safe toy and was not labeled “laced with lead”.

    They really don’t get it. If consumables are more and more dangerous people will eventually buy less and less.

  6. magus_melchior says:

    If you listen to NPR, I think perhaps you’ll remember a recent Talk of the Nation with a guy who wrote a book chronicling the history of Cheney’s political career. One of his first assignments (along with Donald Rumsfeld, IIRC) under Nixon was a social services-type post, and the reason Nixon put him and Rumsfeld there was because like most Republicans of the day, Nixon hated the idea of the government helping the poor, so therefore he placed people loyal to him into the departments he hated for the purpose of giving him an excuse to kill it.@bohemian:

  7. magus_melchior says:

    D’oh. Wish I could edit that, the @bohemian: was supposed to come first, but I mis-clicked.

  8. dextrone says:

    It’s only impossible because the companies who make the toys are so cheap, they don’t want to know about lead paint, they only want to know about their PR and whatnot.

  9. CyGuy says:

    It is very difficult to determine the actual level of a contaminant to any significant level of accuracy. But it is actually pretty easy to detect that some totally banned contaminant is present at all. Here are some examples based on recent Poison Train stories.

    TOYS: Take one of each kind of toy in a shipment, put them into a big vat of solvent until the paint is removed, then test the solvent for the presence of lead. If there is any lead in the solvent, send back the entire shipment of toys to its’ point of origin an ban that factory from shipping goods to the US.

    Likewise toothpaste and petfood. Dump one tube of toothpaste (or can or bag of petfood) from each shipping container into a large vat (you may need ad liquid for dry petfood). Thoroughly blend then sample a milliliter to test for the presence of anti-freeze (or melamine). If there is a greater than zero amount of the contaminant present – send the entire shipment from that factory back and ban that factory from shipping to the US.

  10. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    They can’t stop and inspect cargo but they can stop and harass everyone flying? Give me a fucking break. If the Fatherland security/TSA inspections at the airports cost the corporations that actually run the fucking country any money, they would stop those as well.

  11. CoffeeAddict says:

    It’s a little off putting that they don’t think they can keep all products safe that arrive on our shores. I would say either hire more people to keep tabs on the stuff or stop importing so many things.

  12. Trai_Dep says:

    Obviously, in the real world things get complicated. But if they aren’t on the record for at least TRYING, you know they’re not taking their jobs seriously. Or rather, their Republican masters are telling them not to…