China points finger for product problems

Top Chinese official defends the country's quality control system; blames importers, exporters and illegal companies for safety issues.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A top Chinese official blames importers, exporters and illegal companies for problems with certain products sent from his country to the United States, and declined Thursday to directly express government regret for the incidents.

Vice Minister Wei Chuanzhong said his government is working with American regulators to establish responsibility for contaminated and possibly defective Chinese goods, including toys, toothpaste, pet food and automobile tires.

Given the enormous amount of trade between the two countries, Wei said, "some individual cases related to product quality and food safety emerging from the bilateral trade [are] a normal thing now."

Communicating through an interpreter, he told reporters at a news conference that "We are facing the task to further clarify the responsibility of both sides."

Asked if he would express regret for the incidents, he replied, "The importers and exporters should mutually take their responsibility." He added, "They should apologize to the consumers."

Wei defended his government's system of quality control and product safety, and blamed illicit companies in China for mislabeling products so they might escape inspection.

"We admitted that some illegal companies of China really produced some non-qualified or defective products," Wei said, including the use of paint on children's toys that contained unacceptably high levels of lead.

"The Chinese government has strictly punished those companies and canceled their rights to export to other countries immediately," Wei said.

His country and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission agreed on Tuesday to stop China's use of lead paint on toys exported to the United States.

Mattel (Charts, Fortune 500), the world's largest toymaker and a company reputed to have one of the toughest safety standards in the industry, announced three recalls this summer for millions of Chinese-made toys.

Top company officials testified this week before Congress. CEO Robert Eckert again issued a public apology and told lawmakers Mattel will toughen compliance inspections to ensure the safety of its toys.

China's promise to discontinue the use of lead paint on toys headed for the United States came during a series of meetings between Wei, his delegation, and U.S. officials during his first tour as head of China's massive agency controlling product quality and food safety.

The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine employs more than 200,000 people.

Wei cited his agency's crackdown against two companies in China blamed for contaminated pet food discovered in the United States this past spring, which he acknowledged was the trigger for broader suspicion surrounding products made in China.

"We have shut down the two establishments and put them into the criminal justice procedures to the public security agencies," Wei said through the translator.

His remarks at the Chinese Embassy in Washington also addressed what he called some "misperceptions" regarding health and safety concerns involving toothpaste and a brand of Chinese automobile tire.

The tires, made by China-based Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Co., have an insufficient or missing gum strip, a rubber feature that helps prevent steel belts inside the tire from separating or from damaging the rubber.

In June, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered a recall involving some 450,000 tires imported by New Jersey-based FTS, which had alerted the NHTSA to the problem.

Wei said failures of the tires can be traced to car owners mixing the sizes of tires on a car. "The tire totally complied with the regulations and standards of the U.S.," Wei asserted.

The Chinese company has denied that the tires are defective in statements to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Wei said there is also a "misperception" about Chinese toothpaste. He told reporters "some of the problems are mainly because of differences of standards of our two countries, like the toothpaste issue."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has confirmed the presence of the poisonous substance diethylene glycol (DEG) in certain toothpastes imported from China.

China until July allowed the use of DEG as a preservative in toothpaste for use within the country. The substance chemically resembles ethylene glycol, also known as anti-freeze.

The FDA this week announced it is stopping all suspect toothpaste from entering the United States and posted a warning on its Web site "to avoid using tubes of toothpaste labeled as made in China."

In the nearly two-hour briefing with reporters, Wei said, "I believe through sincere and close cooperation that U.S. consumers can get more and more cheap Chinese products with high quality - and consumers of China can have confidence in American products." Top of page