Import Hassles

The other day I went to the store to buy some toys for my 5-month-old daughter. As I searched through shelves overflowing with colorful plastic and furry objects, I did something I never do: I looked to see where the toys were made. Anything marked "Made in China" I set aside.

I am not a patriotic consumer. My aversion to products from China was a simple issue of safety.

It started with tainted pet food, which may have killed thousands of dogs and cats in the U.S. The culprit was melamine, a cheap chemical Chinese suppliers dumped into U.S.-bound pet food to inflate protein levels. That was followed by FDA warnings that toothpaste made in China contained diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze. Then the FDA announced that Robert's American Gourmet's "Veggie Booty" snack food contained seasoning contaminated with salmonella. Robert's imported that seasoning from China. The import debacle culminated with news that the much-loved Thomas & Friends wooden train toys were coated in lead paint. The company behind the products, Illinois-based RC2 Corp., ended up recalling 1.5 million of the toys--all of which were made in China.

A number of critics are placing the blame for these incidents on U.S. regulators and the Chinese government. That's not a bad place to start. But the real blame sits squarely with the U.S. companies that are importing and distributing these goods. I find it disturbing that a company such as RC2 would sell 1.5 million toys made in factories in China without ensuring these products were safe. If the blog chatter is any indication, RC2 is going to be buried in lawsuits for this mistake. On one site--www.usrecallnews.com--parents who bought these toys for their kids were boiling over in anger. Most said they would happily join any class action filed against the company.

Unfortunately, all of this comes at a time when the business community has made significant headway in convincing Americans that tort reform is good public policy. Corporate America also has made headway with the Supreme Court, which is slowly raising the bar on the standard needed to bring cases to trial.

In the face of the China import debacle, backdating scandals and other corporate misdeeds, the public may have a tough time believing that tort reform is really in their best interest. And they might be right. Although the plaintiffs' bar doesn't always play fair, it forces companies to think twice before cutting corners.

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