FDA opens product-safety office in Beijing

BEIJING – Amid recurring Chinese product-safety scares, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday opened an inspection office in Beijing that officials said would help China export safer products to America and the world.

The new FDA field office, one of three to be launched nationwide here, is the first outside the U.S. and comes during a nadir in U.S. consumer confidence in Chinese-made products following reports of counterfeit drugs, melamine-laced milk and toys covered in potentially lethal lead paint.

The U.S. hopes to work with China as part of a global product-safety strategy that would eventually involve opening similar inspection offices in India, South America, Europe and the Middle East, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told a gathering of Chinese product manufacturers.

“This is not about China and the U.S.,” Leavitt said. “This is about a response to a large shift in global trading patterns. We have to invent solutions to problems that didn’t exist 15 years ago.”

Some food-safety experts, however, questioned the scope of foreign oversight in China, doubting whether factory owners would allow outsiders into their manufacturing plants.

China’s public response to the new product-inspection strategy was generally positive, with officials announcing that they planned to open their own product quality-control office.

Leavitt said he had heard about China’s plans to send product inspectors but said he didn’t know what they would do.

Food experts say access to the 450,000 food-production facilities in China could prove harder than U.S. officials realize. U.S. staffing in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou will be between nine and 12 people, U.S. officials say.

“To access rural individual producers to check product quality could be a little bit difficult,” said He Jiguo, a professor at China Agriculture University’s School of Food Sciences.

“China’s agriculture production process are very dispersed and composed of a number of little factories and rural families, which is quite different from the big farm production in the U.S, where it is easier to facilitate strict management.”

Last year, the U.S. imported $321.5 billion in Chinese products, establishing the nation as America’s second-largest trading partner after Canada.

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