Alex Wong, Associated Press
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, shown in April, has just returned from a weeklong trip to China.

WASHINGTON — The Chinese government knows it needs to change its production of food, toys and other products in order to win back the trust of American consumers, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Wednesday.

Having just returned from a weeklong trip to China, where he signed two agreements with the Chinese government to make products safer, Leavitt said this is just the beginning of the change in how things are done.

"The Chinese are taking us very seriously and I believe making admirable and aggressive attempts at improving, but they have a ways to go and they know it," Leavitt said in a speech at the National Press Club. "I know they have the message. If they want access to our consumers, they've got to produce according to our standards."

Millions of recalled toys, pet food and other consumer products imported from China in the past few months sparked an intense interest in imports and have drawn attention to the large level of products that come in from overseas.

Under the agreements signed last week, which cover food and feed as well as drugs and medical devices, Chinese producers will register with Chinese authorities, who will share that data with HHS. Then regulators will certify that items meet U.S. standards through new quality-assurance practices.

Leavitt, a former Utah governor, said problems with inconsistencies among governments and their own policies that lead to unsafe products is not just a U.S.-China problem, but can affect others.

"We are learning to do this better, to develop new tools for this global marketplace," Leavitt said. "We are inventing solutions to problems that have not existed in the past in the proportion that they do today."

The increase in the number of items imported has helped create much of the problem, he said. Products come to the United States from 800,000 different sources and from 300 different ports, he noted.

"There's just too much of it, and to inspect everything would bring the global economy to a crawl," he said.

Leavitt also said stronger penalties are needed. He said the administration is seeking the authority to increase fines for some unsafe products from a maximum of $1.8 million to as much as $10 million. The steeper fines would be for nonfood products regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, although Leavitt mistakenly told the audience they would be applied to food products.


Contributing: The Associated Press