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Shoppers offered few safeguards against 'Wild West' imports

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. consumer expert calls China the "Wild West" of manufacturing
  • Beijing maintains its goods are safe
  • Dissident says Chinese products are much worse than people realize
  • 40 percent of all goods imported into the U.S. last year came from China
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(CNN) -- Chinese products have become so prevalent in the United States that they're on just about every store shelf and in everyone's reach. But the sheer volume of imports means many are out of reach of government regulators.

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Chinese products have come under renewed scrutiny after a series of recalls this year.

It's a growing problem that came to a head this summer after American consumers faced scare after scare over Chinese products, from seafood they serve friends to toys they give their children to the food they give their pets.

"China is the Wild West right now because their regulatory system lacks the strong food and drug and cosmetic standards that were developed in the last 100 years," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel with the U.S. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

"Anything that does not meet our standards should not be allowed to be imported."

Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland and a former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, says China is benefiting from a tilted trade balance with the United States that has allowed its manufacturers to run rampant. Beijing, he says, is "letting manufacturers do whatever they want without regulation to the point that it borders on atrocities." Video Watch China official blame media for overhyping tainted products »

"They're basically producing poisonous products, selling them to their own people and then selling them on to us," he said.

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According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 40 percent of all consumer products imported into the United States last year -- nearly $250 billion worth of goods -- were manufactured in China. From 1997 to 2004, the CPSC said, the share of all U.S. imports of consumer products from China increased by nearly 300 percent, a trend that is likely to continue.

The CPSC also said 60 percent of all recalled consumer products in the United States this year have come from China -- from toys and jewelry made with lead-based paint to small, defective space heaters that could result in fires. See products that have been affected »

There have been other major revelations of tainted Chinese goods. The United States in late June banned five types of fish and shrimp from China because inspectors found traces of cancer-causing chemicals and antibiotics, including malachite green. It helps fish survive in polluted, crowded fisheries.

The seafood ban came on the heels of a massive pet food recall earlier this year after thousands of cats and dogs were sickened -- the number of reported deaths varies -- by pet food containing wheat gluten made in China tainted with the chemical melamine.

Beijing stands by its products and says people should not be worried about "Made in China" goods.

"Consumers shouldn't be scared of Chinese products. They should have a reputation of being good quality, cheap and safe," said Qin Gang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry. Watch cough medicine with Chinese toxin turns deadly in Panama Video

China food imports

The following are among the top food products from China brought into the United States:

• Apple juice

• Mandarin oranges

• Confections/candy

• Dried garlic

• Cocoa butter

• Hog guts, bladders, stomachs for sausage casings

• Dry berries

Source: USDA

However, even inside China, there have been shocking revelations in recent months: Pigs fattened on force-fed wastewater, dairy cows given so many antibiotics they can't produce yogurt from their milk and lard made from sewage. A Chinese government report earlier this month found that 80 percent of food and products for domestic consumption passed inspection -- meaning that nearly 1 in 5 failed to meet minimal standards.

That's just the tip of the iceberg, according to Zhou Qin, a dissident writer who has researched China's food standards. He said he believes the situation is much worse than anyone realizes.

Farmers and producers, he said, are continually finding new and dangerous ways to cut costs. He cited the example of a farmer in the south who he said deliberately added a cancer-causing chemical to pigs because it made the flesh look better and less fatty. When he challenged the farmer about the potential health dangers, Qin said he replied, "People in the city get free health care."

"The threat is so much more serious than people could ever imagine," Qin said. "China has low labor costs, but you can work out how low the price should be. Businessmen should know something is wrong if the product is cheaper than it should be." Test your knowledge on Chinese imports to U.S. »

For its part, Beijing has announced a series of measures to try and stem the flow of tainted products, including an immediate ban on diethylene glycol, a solvent found in antifreeze that was being used in toothpaste. Beginning in September, all food exports will have an inspection and quarantine symbol to signify the product's safety.

China also has shut down three companies -- two for producing the tainted pet food and one for the toothpaste. In addition, Chinese health inspectors have closed 180 food processing factories because authorities say formaldehyde, illegal dyes and industrial wax were being added to candy, pickles, crackers and seafood.

The former head of China's Food and Drug Administration was executed in recent weeks after being found guilty on corruption charges -- a step the government said should serve notice to others trying to cut corners.

Back in Washington, the issue of just how safe Chinese products are has taken on a renewed focus. There have been congressional hearings, and just last week President Bush tapped a new government panel to come up with recommendations within 60 days on ways to guarantee food safety and other products coming into the United States.

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The head of the panel, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, said he has spoken with Chinese officials about the safety of their products and they are "taking this very seriously, and they should."

"We're working with many countries, China among them, to assure that their practices are what we would expect as American consumers," he said. "I think it's clear to China that the 'Made in China' brand is very much something they need to protect." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's John Vause in Beijing and CNN.com's Wayne Drash in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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