WASHINGTON Major shipping ports on the West Coast, such as Seattle and Long Beach, California, will be the first targets of a new import surveillance program detailed on Monday by the top U.S. product safety regulator.
Following a surge last year of recalls of lead-tainted toys made in China, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Acting Chairman Nancy Nord said the program for the first time will permanently assign agency personnel to key ports full-time.
The CPSC will combine its surveillance efforts with a new cargo tracking system being implemented along with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service "to stop and inspect suspect shipments," she said at a press lunch.
The new tracking system will give CPSC personnel data about "shipments bound for the U.S. even before they leave foreign ports," with a focus on high-risk products, she said.
In late October and early November, Nord was facing calls for her resignation from a handful of Democrats in Congress -- including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Democrats accused Nord and her agency of neglect. Nord refused to quit then.
At the lunch, she said politicians exploited the issue for political gain.
"Even the presidential candidates were stepping all over each other to get part of the action," she said.
She criticized media coverage of "the year of the recall," as 2007 came to be known.
"The coverage reached near-hysteria level," said Nord, a former White House lawyer and executive at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying group.
Nord said the CPSC needs to adjust to a new economy in which imports flood into the United States from manufacturing nations, such as China, where safety standards are low.
"The CPSC must change," she said.
The agency received $80 million, a 30 percent funding increase, in the fiscal 2008 budget bill passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush just days ago.
The House of Representatives last month unanimously approved a bill that would slash lead content in toys, boost CPSC funding on a long-term basis and mandate independent safety testing of toys by labs accredited by the agency.
The legislation followed a storm of criticism of the CPSC in Congress amid recalls of millions of lead-tainted toys made by Mattel Inc, RC2 Corp and other companies.
A Senate bill is also pending floor action, but its fate looks uncertain. Nord said some parts of the Senate bill "would change our mandates in ways that may not be helpful." She said she remains ready to help the Senate in its deliberations.
"As we wait for Congress to act, the agency is working very closely with the toy industry to fashion a program that will result in industry-wide testing and certification of all toys imported into the United States," she said.
On the new port surveillance program, Nord said Oakland, California, would likely also be affected.
(Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Andre Grenon)