MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ANTHONY BROOKS, host:
And I'm Anthony Brooks. Coming up: a growing number of military veterans have no health insurance.
BRAND: First, though: the alarm clock that wakes you in the morning, your toothbrush, your razor, your socks, underwear, the food your cat is eating, even that toy train your child is playing with.
BROOKS: If you live in the United States, these are just a few of the things you use every day that come from China.
BRAND: More and more of the daily items of our life are imported from the People's Republic. And as we've learned in recent weeks, some of those items can be dangerous or even deadly.
BROOKS: In a few moments, we'll talk to a China expert about the codependence that has developed between our two countries.
BRAND: But first, to the latest recall of a product made in China, and it's one that has parents fuming. It is Thomas the Tank Engine. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled one and a half million Thomas toys. It turns out the hugely popular train toys are decorated with lead-based paint that can be particularly harmful to young children.
BROOKS: NPR's Celeste Headlee spent some time with some pretty irritated parents.
CELESTE HEADLEE: More than half the parents I spoke to on the street near the Village Toy Company in Grosse Point didn't even know that many Thomas toys are subject to recall. And when they heard the details, they were less than pleased.
Unidentified Woman #1: I think they should have investigated in more detail the paint before they franchised it out to a company in China.
HEADLEE: Are you concerned about whether or not he's ingested paint already from the toy?
Unidentified Woman #1: Not really. No. None of my children have been particularly inclined to put things in their mouth. So I don't have a great worry about it, no. But I should imagine there are some people that would be very concerned because, you know, you see children those Thomas the Tank toys in their mouth all the time, so.
HEADLEE: What happened here is that they sent the toys overseas to China to get them produced. And that makes it worse?
Unidentified Woman #2: Yes, that makes it worse.
Unidentified Woman #2: Because a lot of things that's been going overseas have come back and is contaminated, and more things should be made in the United States so we'll know what's going on with them. And they are not cheap. They're very expensive.
HEADLEE: Both Tunico Ivy(ph) and Jane Linsky(ph) say the trains are among their children's favorite toys. Neither is sure how they'll pry the small painted locomotives from the youngster's hand. But Sakina Simpson(ph) figures she'll use her imagination.
Ms. SAKINA SIMPSON: Maybe the trains are sick and we need to get them plastic ones. So, yeah, I'll probably tell them about the trains are from a (unintelligible) point that they're not safe for them, and then that we need to get replacements. Yeah, we have all of them. Yes, we do.
HEADLEE: What do you think the company could do to make it right?
Ms. SIMPSON: Free tickets to see Thomas each year.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SIMPSON: Birthday presents, I don't know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)
Ms. SIMPSON: A new movie - complimentary movie for all Thomas fans. A campaign to better help the children, I don't know. Some stickers and balloons.
Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)
HEADLEE: While his mother ponders what other gifts the company could send in apology, her son Kali(ph) is worried about what will happen to his beloved train.
Mr. KALI SIMPSON: Well, we could pick the Thomas train, wrap it around with plastic, tape it, and don't let the kids like, you know, like, take scissors and cut the plastic open. Or we can just, you know, like, repaint it, like, shave off the paint.
HEADLEE: Are you trying to find a way to keep the trains and keep them from getting thrown out?
Mr. SIMPSON: Yeah, yeah.
HEADLEE: Celeste Headlee, NPR News, Grosse Point.
BRAND: It's not just toxic toys. Recently, there was tainted pet food and toothpaste coming from China. With us to discuss the connection between the U.S. and Chinese economies and whether we can do anything to ensure better standards for Chinese goods is Ted Fishman. He's the author of the book "China, Inc." Ted, welcome back to DAY TO DAY.
Mr. TED FISHMAN (Author, "China, Inc."): So glad to be with you. Thank you.
BRAND: Well, you know, there's been a long history of problems with Chinese goods, everything from dangerous materials getting into products to, you know, charges of slave labor and inhumane working conditions. What can the U.S. or what can U.S. consumers do about all that?
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, the reason American companies and world companies go to China is because China is extremely business-friendly. You know, sometimes business friendly is a euphemism for consumer unfriendly. It means that the environment there lacks regulation. And when there is regulation, it lacks oversight. And there's very little we can do to impress on the Chinese to oversee their own methods of manufacturing, so we have to be far more diligent on what we let in.
And that means checking things as they come in our borders in an official way through the customs service, but also making sure that industry takes the steps it needs to take to keep the integrity of its products.
BRAND: So that means more regulation on this side?
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, more regulation, or possibly industry-specific efforts. I just came back from China and one of the things that I did was look at these vast toy markets that exist there. You know, these are markets of small sellers and small manufacturers where there could be 500 or 600 sellers in a place. Just to give you a comparison, you know, that's 500 or 600 sellers each with their own small factories. In the Mall of America - America's biggest retail space - there's 400 stores. So, you know, the scale and duplication of the industry that you have in China is so huge that's impossible to police it on the street there.
So unless you're looking at things when they come in here, you really don't have a chance. But industries themselves have to match the scale and the diversity of manufacturing that comes from China. Otherwise, there really is very little opportunity to have a comprehensive check on what comes in.
BRAND: There was a story in last weekend's New York Times about medicine that came from China that poisoned and killed at least 88 children in Haiti 10 years ago. Again, the same medicine killed at least 100 people a year ago in Panama.
And the FDA here tried to track down the manufacturer in China and conducted a years-long investigation, and it couldn't find out who actually put those poison in the medicine. So what does that tell you about the ability to enforce safety standards?
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, the finding the who is the difficult part. Finding the what as things come in might be a little easier if you have more comprehensive checking. But it's very, very hard. It's not just medicines. It's not just hygiene products, like toothpaste. It's not just toys. It's everything, including animal products. Things come in as one fish, and they're really another. They come in from places that are supposedly clean, but are really toxic. You know, this is a problem for the whole world, and we really have to ask ourselves what do we expect when we're doing business with China?
Everybody goes there to arbitrage something. We go there to find more slack labor standards, lower wages. We go there for environmental reasons. When companies go to China for environmental reasons, it's not because they're going for a cleaner environment.
One of the companies I visited recently was a company that is selling a product that is supposedly green. It's made from plastic fiber that comes from corn. It's biodegradable, and yet the site where they're manufacturing these things was chosen specifically because it's where they can soil the water.
So, you know, this is part of the bargain that the world makes to do business with China. And unless we change the bargain from scratch - get very, very careful from here, monitor, on the business side, how we're doing business over there - then part of the bargain we get is dangerous products coming home.
BRAND: Well, what do you recommend for the average consumer to do?
Mr. FISHMAN: I think it's really, really tough. Consumers have so few tools at their disposal, and the trade from China is getting so voluminous. I think, first of all, we have to insist on industry solutions. And if industry doesn't act fast enough, then we're going to have to figure out how to support a compliance regime here through the regulatory apparatus, which would mean taxing Chinese goods - our American goods with Chinese origin as they come in in order to pay for compliance regimes, which means more complete inspection and so on. Right now, there's very, very sporadic spot inspection for goods that come in here, if there's a kind of tariff that can cover a more comprehensive inspection regime, then we can do a better job.
BRAND: Ted Fishman is the author of the book "China, Inc." Ted, thanks, for joining us.
Mr. FISHMAN: My pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.