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Bush OKs Tough Product Safety Rules

The federal government would toughen its policing of products from abroad under steps proposed by President Bush on Tuesday after a rash of recalls of dangerous toothpaste, dog food and toys.

Bush said the United States benefits from having an open market and a huge variety of products from across the globe.

However, he said, "We need to do more to ensure that American families have confidence in what they find on our store shelves. They have the right to expect the food they eat, the medicines they take or the toys they buy for their children to be safe."

Acting on recommendations from an advisory panel, Bush proposed that the Food and Drug Administration be empowered to order mandatory recalls of unsafe food products. Currently, the FDA lacks the authority to order recalls, but works with producers on voluntary recalls. "Specifically, the FDA would be empowered to order a recall when a company refuses to recall their product voluntarily, or moves too slowly in removing the unsafe product from the market," the president said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the United States has "among the safest food supplies on the planet. It's not perfect. We can get better. But we're very fortunate to live in a place where these problems are discovered quickly and responded to."

Bush also proposed increasing the presence of U.S. inspectors from Customs, the Border Patrol, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies in countries that are major exporters to the United States.

Other proposals would strengthen CPSC's authority by making it illegal for companies to knowingly sell a recalled product; by authorizing the CPSC to issue follow-up recall announcements, and by requiring recalling companies to report supplier and delivery information. Further, CPSC would be able to impose asset forfeiture penalties for criminal offenses.

A third recommendation calls for establishing a certification program - likened to a seal of approval - for companies with a proven track record for meeting safety standards. The Bush administration sees that as a powerful tool because it presumably would make certified suppliers more attractive to big retailers.

In addition, regulators would be able to concentrate on countries and companies that don't have a reputation for meeting certification standards

"For many years we've relied on a strategy based on identifying unsafe products at the border," Bush said. "The problem is that the growing volume of products coming into our country makes this approach increasingly unreliable."

He said federal regulators now will focus on stopping dangerous products from reaching U.S. borders in the first place.

Bush's proposal drew some quick criticism.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the president's package "leaves consumers in the dark and continues the hodgepodge of federal oversight."

"Of course we need tougher penalties, more inspections, and better information sharing when it comes to the food and toys coming into our country," Schumer said. "However, the rubber won't meet the road until the administration does three key things: Provide the FDA and CPSC with more federal dollars so they can carry out their heavy mandates; give consumers quick and user-friendly access to comprehensive food and product safety information; and set and implement government-wide priorities for import and domestic food and product safety oversight."

Bush put an emphasis on the recommendation for an expanded enforcement role for the FDA.

"The FDA will be empowered to order a recall when a company refuses to recall their product voluntarily, or moves too slowly in removing an unsafe product from the market," he said. "With this authority, the FDA will be in a position to act quickly when the problem occurs."

Bush said the United States imported nearly $2 trillion of goods last year through more than 825,000 importers.

"And the vast majority of these imports are safe," Bush said. "Unfortunately, in recent months, Americans have seen imports from toys to toothpaste to pet food recalled because of safety concerns."

Bush said the Food and Drug Administration also was unveiling a food protection plan.

"This plan addresses both imported and domestically produced food and will strengthen the FDA's ability to coordinate with other federal agencies to protect our food supply," the president said.

"Identifying risks all along the food supply chain, this plan will help prevent the problems from arising, respond effectively if they do, and improve communication with industry and our public," Bush said.

Meanwhile, the embattled head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission vigorously defended her enforcement record Tuesday amid Democratic assertions that a slow product recall policy forces parents to play "toybox roulette."

Nancy Nord, a Bush administration appointee, said she supported additional money to bolster the troubled regulatory agency, calling a proposed House bill doubling its budget "a win for consumers."

Nord also told a House Energy and Commerce panel that she did no wrong by accepting three free trips from industry worth thousands of dollars, saying it had been common agency practice with approval from CPSC attorneys.

"This practice, not common by me, is legal ... and was in place for 20 years, long before I came to the commission," she told lawmakers who questioned her independence.

"Faced with limited enforcement dollars," Nord said, "I would much rather spend $900 in a laboratory than on airfare and hotel."

Still, Nord acknowledged that reasonable people could argue about the propriety of the trips and said that in the event Congress wants to ban the practice, she would support that. "If Congress wishes to do that and give us the funds, yes of course, I will," she said.

Nord, who has said she won't resign, contended that it was important for CPSC and Congress to work together to fix problems as the busy holiday shopping season approaches.

"As acting chairman, I believed that it was important for me to be proactive and come forward to Congress with my ideas to strengthen the commission's hand in enforcing our laws and protecting the American public from unsafe products," Nord said.

Some Democratic lawmakers weren't fully convinced.

"It's one thing when we all resolve to work together on the millions of millions of products recalled in the face of danger or injury. It's another thing when the chairwoman designated to take care of those issues responds by saying it is too cumbersome to adopt the reforms suggested," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said it was clear the CPSC has not been fully doing its job during Nord's two-year tenure.

"The CPSC once stood for the Consumer Protection Safety Commission. Today it stands for 'Can't Protect the Safety of Children,"' Markey said. "The reality is CPSC has lost 15 percent of its workforce since 2004. ...As the holidays approach, parents should not have to play toybox roulette."

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats demanded Nord's resignation after she opposed a Senate measure that would, in part, have authorized the hiring of more staff and a doubling of CPSC's budget. Nord says she opposes separate provisions in the measure that would have extended protections to whistleblowers and would have made it easier for the government to make public reports of faulty products.

Nord and her predecessor as chairman, Hal Stratton, reportedly accepted free trips worth thousands of dollars at industry expense. The purported aim: To share information with industry about "CPSC priorities" and discuss toy safety.

Nord has requested the Office of Government Ethics to review whether the trips created, as critics say, an improper appearance of conflicts of interest.

Consumer advocates have questioned whether Nord has the independence to energize a CPSC that has seen a record number of recalls involving millions of lead-tainted toys and other products this year.

"Acting Chairman Nord is totally wrongheaded in her approach. She's forgotten that it's the Consumer Product Safety Commission, not the Business Product Safety Commission," said Ann Brown, who chaired the CPSC during the Clinton administration.

On Tuesday, CPSC commissioner Thomas Moore said it was vital that Congress act quickly to provide CPSC more money. At the same time, he pleaded for patience to let the agency rebuild as Nord clings to her job.

"The downsizing and dismantling of the agency has been going on for a while, so I ask you to be patient with all of us at the agency as we rebuild our staff expertise and, with your strong support, refocus our efforts on providing a greater level of product safety," said Moore, a Democrat.