A plan to make imports safe
Kenneth A. Bamberger and Andrew T. Guzman, San Francisco Chronicle
By Kenneth A. Bamberger and Andrew T. Guzman, San Francisco Chronicle
The Obama administration's response to the problem of unsafe imports from tainted foreign-made toys to adulterated drugs must reflect the realities of globalization.
U.S. regulators possess a full toolbox to police domestic production. When laws mandating product safety are not enough, the production process itself is regulated, effectively placing a regulator on the each factory floor. For foreign products, however, American regulation of the production process is often impossible.
The dominant regulatory response to date has been more government inspections, ignoring the fact that there are simply too many imports for inspections to work. There are eight inspectors in the Food and Drug Administration's new Beijing office, while Chinese exports to the United States total $321 billion. Even doubling or tripling the number of inspectors would not be enough.
There is another option: Giving U.S. importers incentives to monitor compliance with domestic consumer-protection laws. Where imports are likely to pose a threat to consumers, higher legal penalties should be imposed on U.S. companies trading in these unsafe products, making these firms liable for the true costs of their foreign activity.
Drug companies using foreign supply chains, for example, would face increased administrative penalties if harmful products enter the United States.
Companies would respond by taking safety costs into account when deciding where and how to conduct their business, extending the force of American consumer protection far beyond the formal reach of U.S. law. Companies would compete for the cheapest way to produce safe goods, rather than competing to produce the cheapest goods.
Kenneth A. Bamberger is an assistant professor of law and Andrew T. Guzman is a professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law.2/25/2009