Friday, November 9, 2007

Mike Leavitt's Ignorance Palpable

I thought Health and Human Services Chief Mike Leavitt's ignorance applied to health care. It turns out it extends to product safety as well. Sec. Leavitt just hosted Ask the White House where he addressed import safety.

"Not too long ago, our import safety procedures were adequate for the imports we were receiving. But now we are importing so much more from many more countries, and it has taken time for the full impact of that change to be felt."

Translation, the system changed and the administration didn't adjust. However, President Bush has long made it clear he prefers "voluntary measures". What role did this shift to manufacturers ensuring compliance have in the new inadequacy? My brother-in-law works for the largest small appliance company in North America. All products for the U.S. are made in China. They do not own the Chinese plants but simply contract out production to their specifications. It is between his company and its subcontractors to work out the quality measures and methods for ensuring American consumers receive value for their money. If the system is voluntary and this leg is performed poorly or fraudulently, the consumer is at risk.

"Our product safety standards have been among the highest in the world for a very long time, and they have always applied to imported products as well as products produced domestically."

Standards mean nothing if producers don't have capable processes. One can set a standard of zero airplane accidents but if airlines hire unqualified staff and don't properly maintain their equipment, accidents are a predictable consequence. One could require George W. Bush to ride his bike at the same level as Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, but the President is incapable of performing at that level. The key is producer's processes/systems and their focus on continual improvement. Mr. Leavitt mentions aspects of this in an almost laughable comment:

"A better way is to build safety into products from the beginning. That requires a global consensus on safety and quality and close collaboration between trading nations to maintain high standards. In a global market, safety is a team sport. It requires a culture of collaboration, not just within the borders of a country, but within the economic community. We have begun the necessary collaboration with China. "

Dr. Deming spoke of driving out fear as critical ingredient for quality. Where there is fear there will be fudging of figures. The Chinese recently executed a government official for quality problems in its drug industry. They plan to enforce improved quality with criminal charges, jail time and fines. These efforts will likely encourage more falsification of data.

"We are also in the final phases of negotiation on two more agreements with China, one on food and feed and another on drugs and medical devices. We hope to sign both agreements in December."

Hold on to your medicine bottles, Chinese drugs may be headed our way. The pharmaceutical industry is in a profit depression and needs cheaper production to get income soaring again. As for food and feed, my guess is Americans don't want any food from China. Our pets and livestock may not have a choice, but they do have eyes, a nose and taste buds. They too will make a judgement. As Dr. Deming said "the consumer is a quick judge."

"With these agreements (food, feed drugs and medical devices) in place, much of the work of ensuring product safety will be done by the Chinese, who have every interest in meeting our standards."

Recall the admonition to drive out fear? Yes, most of the product safety work will be done by the Chinese who face criminal charges, fines, jail time and even death. This is cluster **** from the get go, Mike. I can't wait to see him hooked up to pacemaker made in China. Given the Medicare price setting regulations he implemented for cardiac devices, such an act would be karma.

"The vast majority of our imports are safe. They are safe because most producers know that consumers won’t buy what they can’t trust. The market itself rewards producers of safe, high-quality products and punishes producers of unsafe or poor quality products."

Yes, Mr. Leavitt and the vast majority of airplanes land safely, yet we do our best to prevent accidents and not via voluntary measures. As for the market rewarding producers, there are fresh examples of one huge recall putting a company out of business. The consumer gets no chance to act until its too late. As for recovery for damages incurred, that becomes more problematic when the company's gone bankrupt. But Mr. Leavitt didn't speak to consumer's rights in those circumstances.

"... here’s my advice: Buy from people you trust. That’s a very serious recommendation. I’ve been with major retailers who have told me the process they go through to assure that they’re not in a position where they have unsafe products on their shelf. So my suggestion is shop with people you trust."

Tell that to the parents who purchased Aqua Dots, date rape laced toys from Toys 'R Us or Target, both well respected retailers. Buying from people we trust is a very shallow recommendation. It's an underhanded way of saying, if you don't, then it's your fault. You get what you deserve.

Mike's comments add up to continued "Buyer beware." Businesses and the government have roles in presenting safe and useful products to the American public. Both need to do more, but a critical start is learning more about quality. It doesn't come from decrees, high standards or inspections. It comes from profound knowledge and its application. Start learning Mike, before the consumer (who are also voters) get fed up with the sorry state of leadership in our country.