Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar raised concerns Monday over the potency of U.S. consumer product regulators, saying a federal commission is ill-equipped to keep dangerous Chinese-made toys from hitting store shelves in this country.
The Democratic freshman senator's comments came at a suburban Minneapolis forum she organized on toy safety. She announced she would draft legislation to increase staffing levels at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and give inspectors more power to enforce toy safety laws and order recalls.
She argued the ranks at the commission have gotten too thin, citing a head count at the federal agency that has gone from 978 in 1980 to 414 today. She said only 100 field investigators and compliance personnel are available to inspect $22 billion of imported toys in ports, warehouses and stores.
"They basically have been starved to the point where they don't have enough people to enforce these laws," Klobuchar said.
"Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that we are suddenly getting toys that are unsafe and very dangerous for our kids," she added. "You have no one watching the store in the United States."
She was joined in her call for more aggressive regulation by Nancy Cowles, director a Chicago-based safety group called KIDS, which stands for Kids in Danger.
"We're really relying on a very small staff with a very small budget to keep us safe from some of these products," Cowles said.
Cowles said existing laws make it difficult for regulators to act as quick as they should because manufacturers have too much leverage in designing the recalls.
No regulators or toy makers spoke at Klobuchar's forum. Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the commission, didn't immediately return a phone message.
Some two dozen toys made in China have been recalled this year, the senator said. The recalls included 1.5 million of the popular Thomas & Friends trains because they were coated with lead paint that can damage brain cells, especially in children.
An estimated 80 percent of the toys sold in the United States are assembled in China.
Chinese officials say they are addressing concerns about tainted or dangerous products, but they say news reports about problem imports have been hyped.
Others in Congress are honing in on the toy safety issue as well.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic candidate for president, introduced a bill in May that would direct the commission to classify children's products that contain lead as banned hazardous substances.
By Brian Bakst, Associated Press Writer
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)