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Tainted Chinese imports spur calls to protect consumer

Toxic blood thinner may have killed as many as 81 people, US says.

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But Dr. von Eschenbach added that he believes current inspections would not have caught the contaminated heparin because the toxic chemical it contained closely mimics genuine ingredients.

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What's needed, he said, is a five-year improvement plan that adds new information systems and tests, and includes the opening of three planned FDA offices in China. "The solution needs to be much more comprehensive than just simply inspecting a facility," said the FDA chief.

A Senate hearing Thursday is set to address the same issues. The Senate has already passed a measure giving the FDA a 20 percent increase in funds, though it's unlikely the White House will give final approval to such a jump in appropriations.

If the Chinese government inspection process was similar to that in the US, there would not be as much of a problem in regards to worry about tainted products entering America, says Joel Trachtman, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. But it isn't. And right now "they don't coordinate very well," he says.

The main question for the US is not how to punish the Chinese, but how to assist them moving forward, he says. Chinese citizens do not want to suffer from tainted products anymore than citizens of other countries in the world. Nor does Beijing want to see exports wither due to foreign concerns. "China needs to understand its broader long-term commercial interests here," says Mr. Trachtman.

Right now, the FDA plans to open its Chinese offices in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. They will employ 13 people – eight from the US, and five locals.

China has yet to agree to final implementation of this plan. But under the terms of the World Trade Organization – which both the US and China belong to – the US has every right to carry out intrusive inspections in China if there is a scientific basis for them, says Gary Hufbauer, a trade and regulation expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "This has been quite damaging to China, but I think the authorities there realize this," says Mr. Hufbauer.

Overall, the demands of policing the vast quantity of products that flow across the world's borders are so large that they will require a global solution, Naím says.