Saturday, August 4, 2007

BEIJING (AP) — Beijing and Washington have wrapped up their first meeting aimed at resolving safety problems with Chinese products, a step one specialist said yesterday was crucial if China wanted to protect its image abroad and preserve stability at home.

The two governments said late Thursday that they have pledged to cooperate more closely on product and food safety after a visit by U.S. health officials this week that coincided with the recall of nearly 1 million Chinese-produced toys tainted with lead paint.

“Our vision … aims to increase cooperation and information-sharing between the U.S. and Chinese governments on these safety issues,” Michael O. Leavitt, the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. Officials will meet again this month in Beijing.

A spokesman for the department, Bill Hall, said the U.S. hoped to complete draft cooperation agreements by December but declined to provide additional details of the talks, which centered on safety of food, animal feed, drugs and medical devices.

Shen Dingli, a specialist on U.S. affairs at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said the meetings were the first step in a process that could take as long as two years to significantly minimize China’s current product-safety woes.

China initially bristled at what it perceived as attempts to slander its reputation as an exporter, but the government has become much more proactive in recent weeks, prominently announcing crackdowns on unscrupulous producers, new laws and the country’s first-ever recall system.

“China has the biggest stake here … because exports have a lot to do with Chinese stability, for prosperity, for employment, for the Chinese government to exert control over the country,” Mr. Shen said in a telephone interview. “So the Chinese government has no reason to (just do) window dressing.”

Fears were triggered earlier this year after a Chinese-made pet food ingredient was linked to the deaths of cat and dogs in North America. Since then, Chinese goods ranging from toothpaste to tires have been banned or recalled in numerous countries.

On Wednesday, U.S. toy manufacturer Fisher-Price Inc. recalled 83 types of toys made with lead paint. They included the popular Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego characters.

The U.S. has also blocked imports of five types of farmed seafood from China that were found to contain unapproved drugs.

The Health and Human Services delegation offered “technical assistance” to China’s quality watchdog “to address systemic problems related to safety of these products,” Mr. Leavitt’s statement said, without giving details.

U.S. officials also offered to provide information on how Chinese exporters can show they are obeying safety requirements.

China’s General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine — a quality watchdog — said on its Web site that the talks were “friendly” and touched on the U.S. seafood ban.

China has acknowledged safety problems, but says other countries face similar challenges and insists its products should not be unfairly singled out. Commerce Minister Bo Xilai said 99 percent of China’s exports are safe.

Yet nearly every new day brings another announcement of unsafe products.

Yesterday, the official Xinhua news agency said health authorities suspended the production and sale of four domestic brands of milk beverages after they were found to contain insufficient protein and excessive sweeteners.

State press reported that 17 more members of a gang accused of making fake rabies vaccine out of starch and water have been detained in China’s northeast. A total of 227 persons received the fake vaccine, the China Daily newspaper said.

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