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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Michael Leavitt
Michael Leavitt
Secretary of Health & Human Services
November 8, 2007

Michael Leavitt
I'm delighted to have this opportunity to answer your questions on import safety. This is an issue that concerns all of us. It's been my top priority for the past several months, and I'm glad to be able to share with you what I've learned.

Mary, from Cincinatti writes:
Why did it take the government so long to act when millions of items were coming into the country without proper screening?

Michael Leavitt
Not too long ago, our import safety procedures were adequate for the imports we were receiving. But now we are importing so much more from many more countries, and it has taken time for the full impact of that change to be felt. This is not unique to the United States, either. Last week I met with the ministers of health from eight of our closest allies. Every one of them expressed the same concern. I can with complete confidence say that we have among the safest food supplies on the planet. It is not perfect, but we are very fortunate to live in a place where these problems are discovered quickly and responded to.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Secretary Leavitt: I believe I heard the President say that we use to inspect import's at the border and now wants to inspect and have our standards inplace before they reach the border. You mean to tell me that we did not have standards inplace on items that the United States was importing? In the new plan,do we intend to have US INSPECTORS at the production end of the import line? and if so how do we do this? Thank You

Michael Leavitt
Our product safety standards have been among the highest in the world for a very long time, and they have always applied to imported products as well as products produced domestically. But today we are importing so many more products that our old system of inspections at the border is no longer adequate to catch problem products. A better way is to build safety into products from the beginning. That requires a global consensus on safety and quality and close collaboration between trading nations to maintain high standards. In a global market, safety is a team sport. It requires a culture of collaboration, not just within the borders of a country, but within the economic community. We have begun the necessary collaboration with China. We have already signed a renewed agreement with China focused on the safety of children’s toys, fireworks, cigarette lighters, and other targeted products. We are also in the final phases of negotiation on two more agreements with China, one on food and feed and another on drugs and medical devices. We hope to sign both agreements in December at the next session of the Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing. With these agreements in place, much of the work of ensuring product safety will be done by the Chinese, who have every interest in meeting our standards. What we are saying to the world is, if you want access to American consumers, you must meet our expectations of safety and quality. Producers that don’t meet our standards won’t be allowed to import products into the U.S.

Michael, from Powell, Tn writes:
Why are more foreign imports being recalled?

Michael Leavitt
One big change in recent decades is that the number of our trading partners has grown. We used to receive most of our imports from countries with safety standards much like our own. Lately, more of our imports have started coming from other countries whose standards haven’t quite caught up to ours. What we need to do is help them develop their own regulatory systems, based on standards as high as ours.

Alex, from Albany writes:
What do you suggest the average american should do to feel safe about buying imported items - especially chinese ones?thanks

Michael Leavitt
The vast majority of our imports are safe. They are safe because most producers know that consumers won’t buy what they can’t trust. The market itself rewards producers of safe, high-quality products and punishes producers of unsafe or poor quality products. Retailers are very aware of this. One of the visits I made was to a large, well-known retailer who said to me, “If I put a product on my shelf, it’s my brand, and I have to be certain that it is safe.” I visited a wholesale fruit market and found two people selling apples next to each other. I said to one, “Why do people buy from you as opposed to your next-door neighbor?” He said, “It’s because they trust me, and if I have a bad apple one day, they will go to my competitor tomorrow.” So part of the solution for consumers is to buy from retailers you trust and to look for quality in what you buy. Price shouldn’t be your only consideration.

John, from Texas writes:
It seems strange that when we travel to developing countries we're told not to eat certain foods because we'll get sick, yet now we're importing food from these same countries. What's being done to insure that the food is safe? Many of these countries don't have the same environmental standards we do so how do we know that the seafood is harvested from clean waters or vegetables are irrigated with clean water?

Michael Leavitt
Bringing producing countries up to our standards is part of the solution. That’s the goal of our collaboration with countries like China. We are saying to them, if you want access to American consumers, you must meet our standards of safety and quality. We are already working with them to upgrade their regulatory systems and will be increasing our presence overseas for greater cooperation. The private sector needs to do its part. The manager of a lettuce processing plant in Texas told me their motto was, “Know your grower.” That meant knowing when and where the lettuce was picked, what nutrients went into the soil, the kind of water that was put on it and anything else affecting the quality of the lettuce. We need to promote the adoption of such best practices by industry.

Alexandra, from Baton Rouge writes:
What is being done to safegaurd children's toys imported for the holiday season?

Michael Leavitt
As I mentioned earlier, a variety of actions are already underway to improve import safety, particularly for children’s toys. In September, the Consumer Product Safety Commission signed a renewed agreement with China focused on the safety of children’s toys, fireworks, and other targeted products. That same month, the U.S. Toy Industry of America announced plans to implement new compliance systems to bolster the safety of toys sold in the U.S. But let me say as a parent and grandparent with three little toddlers that I’ve thought a lot about what parents can do. And here’s my advice: Buy from people you trust. That’s a very serious recommendation. I’ve been with major retailers who have told me the process they go through to assure that they’re not in a position where they have unsafe products on their shelf. So my suggestion is shop with people you trust.

Michael Leavitt
Thank you for taking the time to share your concerns. In this increasingly complex world, import safety is indeed very much a team sport. Maintaining our high standards of safety and quality will require collaboration from all us as informed consumers. Americans have a reasonable expectation of safety in the products we buy. We must honor that trust.