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Peter A. Quinter

Quality Insider

Chinese Quality Dangers Are Exaggerated

OPINION: Importers and retailers suffer

Published: Monday, December 10, 2007 - 22:00

The recent rash of highly publicized recalls and alerts on Chinese-made toothpaste, tires, and toys has shaken confidence in the safety of Chinese imports, with the media calling for consumer boycotts and stricter trade regulations to discourage U.S. businesses from dealing with China.

The danger presented by Chinese imports has been highly exaggerated, however—recalled goods are estimated at less than one percent of total U.S. goods imported from China.

Contrary to what media reports have led consumers to believe, China is far from being the only country with a questionable product-safety record. On the Food and Drug Administration’s current list of “Import Alerts,” issued to prevent entry of certain products from certain countries, Mexico is currently in the lead with 20 alerts, followed by another next-door neighbor and prime trading partner, Canada, which is tied with China at 16 alerts.

Never mind that in the last few months the United States has seen numerous recalls for domestically manufactured products such as pet food, spinach, seafood, and dietary supplements. Earlier this year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled approximately 2.3 million dishwashers, 3.7 million candles, 620,000 pressure washers, and 72,000 air compressors—all made right in the United States.

U.S. importers and retailers of Chinese-made products—which are statistically not necessarily more dangerous than those made in other countries—are being unfairly targeted by the media, consumers, and sometimes overzealous customs inspectors.

It’s only logical that China, as the United States’ second largest supplier of consumer goods, would be responsible for a growing number of product recalls in the short term. The dynamic of the U.S.-China trade relationship—with consumer goods imports from China nearly tripling in just 10 years and Americans spending more than $280 billion on Chinese-made goods in 2006 alone—is such that a short-term increase in product recalls and import alerts, in and of itself, should be neither surprising nor particularly alarming.

Within this climate of less-than-reliable information, fear, and growing anti-China public sentiment, U.S. importers and retailers face the tough task of bringing their Chinese imports to market. That said, there are certain steps they can take to reduce the risk of excessive scrutiny of their Chinese-made goods. These measures are among a number that can be taken to counter the anti-China backlash and reduce the likelihood of future shipping delays or other hassles associated with safety alerts and recalls:

  • Don’t wait until the product reaches U.S. shores before taking action—hire a third-party inspection company in China to verify the quantity and quality of the merchandise, or have a sample product sent by express mail for thorough examination before shipping the remainder of the goods to the United States.
  • Anticipate nontariff barriers presented by U.S. customs inspectors—make sure the product is registered or licensed with the appropriate U.S. agency, such as the FDA, Federal Communications Commission, or Environmental Protection Agency, before shipping from China.
  • Be an industry watchdog on import alerts, exclusion orders, or antidumping or countervailing duties—check the websites of federal agencies such as the FDA, International Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce to determine whether the Chinese-made product is likely to run into unwanted roadblocks.
  • Determine if the product is subject to any quotas prior to shipping—contact the local U.S. Customs and Border Protection office, or consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding any agricultural items.
  • Be sure to have documentation on hand for all imported goods. Obtain proof of any trademark licenses on the products, and if possible use letters of credit that provide for shipping and payment terms more favorable to the buyer rather than to the supplier in China.

Proactive steps like these can truly help U.S. importers and retailers avoid headaches at the port of entry or once their Chinese-made goods are on store shelves.

The current discrimination against China is a much larger issue that needs to be addressed. The seeming increase in product recalls from China is more a reflection of the country’s growing economic development rather than a substantial increase in unsafe products. Nevertheless, China continues to be a focus for dissatisfaction over the global problem of substandard product quality.

Product safety and quality have next to nothing to do with the country of origin. Efforts would be better spent on raising product safety standards worldwide and strengthening the regulation of all goods that cross U.S. borders, rather than pointing fingers or trying to start a trade war with China. Trade between the U.S. and China is positive and will undoubtedly continue long after the current China-bashing frenzy subsides.


About The Author

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Peter A. Quinter

Peter Quinter is a customs and international trade attorney and shareholder with the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff, P.A., in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he leads a team of highly-experienced attorneys in the firm’s U.S. Customs and International Trade Law Practice, dealing with complex international trade and U.S. Customs regulations and procedures.