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Pro/Con: Should the U.S. ban food and drugs from China until they can be certified as safe?

Tainted Chinese imports have become a serious problem. The Chinese government realizes this and has taken swift action, including shutting down 180 food-processing plants since December and executing the former director of its drug and safety age...

Tainted Chinese imports have become a serious problem. The Chinese government realizes this and has taken swift action, including shutting down 180 food-processing plants since December and executing the former director of its drug and safety agency for corruption.

But due to economic realities beyond the Chinese government's grasp, Chinese imports likely will continue to be a problem in the short term. That's why American importers need to step up to the plate and assume greater responsibility.

It's way too easy for American isolationists to use this issue as an excuse to raise protectionist barriers. For example, if we were to ban all food and drugs from China until they could be certified -- a potentially political, complicated and very time-consuming endeavor -- what do we say about contaminated imports from other countries? And what would other countries say about tainted imports from the United States?

In June 2007 alone, the Food and Drug Administration refused 39 shipments from the United Kingdom, 26 from Switzerland, 38 from Japan, and almost 1,000 from 74 other countries -- including 37 shipments of American goods that were exported, then imported back into the United States. Do we ban these imports until certified?

As expected, isolationists will use this issue to build a dangerously misleading case against China, America's latest scapegoat -- after Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, and Mexico in the 1990s -- for all of our economic ills.

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America's trade detractors continue to deceive the public by saying Chinese imports are responsible for most American job losses. The truth: Chinese trade benefits American businesses and families enormously.

In fact, by 2010, Chinese trade is projected to boost U.S. real disposable income per household by $1,000 per year, according to Oxford Economics, an economic forecaster associated with London's Oxford University. And this is on top of current annual income gains of $10,000 for each American household attributable to overall trade and globalization.

Protectionists often single out imports as bad for our economy. In reality, they offer U.S. consumers greater choices and lower costs. In turn, this affords American families more disposable income for education, health care and rent. In addition to keeping inflation down, inexpensive imported components help keep U.S. producers competitive.

Imports, however, are responsible for some job losses, but far fewer than many think. The Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic-led think tank, says all U.S. imports combined are responsible for only 2 percent to 5 percent of U.S. job losses.

If all U.S. tariffs were eliminated today, a move that would increase imports, the U.S. International Trade Commission says "60,000 workers would move from contracting sectors to expanding sectors." This represents 0.04 percent of the 146 million-strong U.S. labor force. The report also says U.S. economic welfare would increase by $3.7 billion annually.

Technological advancements and strong productivity growth -- not China -- are responsible for most American job losses. This has empowered fewer workers to more than double U.S. manufacturing shipments since 1986 -- actions that have improved our standard of living.

China is quickly becoming the second most powerful nation. America will be much better off viewing China as a partner -- especially against terrorism -- rather than an adversary. And American companies are wise to work with Chinese firms to make their products and services more attractive worldwide, a process that creates more higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs in the United States.

Does this mean we should turn a blind eye to Chinese tainted imports? No. But we should view them with a balanced perspective, and understand that friends can accomplish much more than enemies.

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"Who lost China?" was repeatedly asked after 1949 when that country became communist. Let's not have to ask the question again.

China itself has just made the strongest possible argument for immediate, sweeping U.S. action to protect American consumers from its dangerous food and drug products.

Only a few days ago, a government spokesman made this surprisingly candid admission: "Our work with food and drug supervision is just beginning. The foundation of the work is still weak, and the trend is not promising."

The policy implications are unmistakable: First, any Chinese goods made for direct or indirect human consumption must be considered a priori hazardous. Second, whatever Beijing's intentions, China's regulatory woes will persist for decades. Thus Washington's continued dithering increasingly invites epidemics and even mass deaths.

Worse, with Chinese products proliferating in U.S. markets, neutralizing the threat grows more challenging each day.

The Chinese imports Washington knows about -- goods such as canned fruits, vegetables and seafood, non-chocolate candy, soaps, toothpaste and vitamin ingredients -- which enter the United States in their original form, are still tiny in absolute terms. But the levels of most have jumped at least fourfold since the late 1990s. Consequently, their still-meager share of U.S. consumption has soared as well.

No government data exist for Chinese food and drug imports entering the U.S. market as ingredients of final products whether produced domestically or abroad, but recent reporting reveals them to be even more widespread and growing at least as rapidly.

As for unprocessed Chinese food products -- especially fish, meat, fruits and vegetables -- U.S. imports are booming, too, but data for their share of U.S. consumption are patchy.

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Because the threat's scale is unknown, simply banning food and drug products from China won't suffice. Yet even the strongest alternatives advanced so far are woefully inadequate or unrealistic.

Seeking Chinese promises of regulatory improvements ignores the fatal systemic flaws Beijing now acknowledges. Assuming that American and other exporters from China will move aggressively to protect their brands and avoid lawsuits, respectively, ignores business' slipshod record to date and will work too reactively -- often only after Chinese products sicken or kill Americans.

Tightening the U.S. inspection system at home and extending its monitoring authority over Chinese production would help -- and improve America's own food safety record as well. But the costs should be borne by some combination of the Chinese government and all companies exporting from China to the United States.

Why charge U.S. taxpayers because their leaders and multinational businesses recklessly pushed to open domestic food and drug markets to an irresponsible supplier? In the end, however, Washington can't supply enough Americans to bring China's sprawling production networks under control.

The only realistic alternative is mandatory, detailed, country-of-origin labeling for all food and drug products sold in America -- including their ingredients.

Initially, five kinds of labels would enable American consumers to make informed choices, and efficiently send businesses accurate market signals, without creating vast new bureaucracies. The first, for goods produced entirely under the domestic regulatory system, would certify the product as safe for human consumption. The second, for goods made with foreign but no Chinese inputs, would certify that the product may be safe for human consumption. The third, for goods containing any Chinese inputs, would state that the product cannot be certified as safe for human consumption. The fourth, for companies unwilling or unable to disclose contents in sufficient detail, would carry the same warning as long as the information was missing. And the fifth would specify the country-of-origin for all unprocessed foods.

Providing false information would lead to mandatory criminal penalties, sky-high fines, corporate shutdowns, or complete import bans. To avoid discriminating against China, this system would be extended as quickly as possible to cover other trade partners with demonstrably poor regulatory systems. Some will object that developing countries will be unfairly "profiled." But American consumers will surely choose safety over political correctness as long as necessary.

John Manzella of Buffalo, N.Y., is president of Manzella Trade Communications and is the author of "Grasping Globalization."Alan Tonelson is a research fellow at the U.S. Business & Industry Council in Washington, D.C., and is the author of "The Race to the Bottom."

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