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Protecting American consumers New barriers to unsafe foods, products should have been planned long ago

Pope John XXIII told a joke at his own expense, explaining how he used to lie awake at night thinking about a serious matter and deciding that he needed to tell the pope about it. Until he woke up completely and remembered that he was the pope.

President Bush shows signs of waking up. The other day it occurred to him that he heads a big government, with lots of people to take on lots of serious matters that need dealing with, including concerns that food, toys, tires and other products imported into the United States pose a danger to those who eat, play with, drive on or otherwise use them. That happened not long after Bush also realized, six years too late, that the United States ought to do something to move the Israel-Palestine dispute off dead center.

Though everyone denies any connection to any particular incident or country, Bush's announcement of a Cabinet-level task force on import safety comes hot on the heels of a rash of apparently dangerous products from China -- everything from poisoned pet food and toothpaste to lead-carrying toy trains.

China doesn't like being told its products are not up to snuff. But the government there just went to the extreme of executing its former chief food and drug inspector for taking bribes in return for approving unsafe medicines.

No American official apparently faces such a fate. But Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt has been tasked with developing a new plan to protect American consumers from dangerous imports. That job will involve herding the cats at his department, which includes the Food and Drug Administration, as well as those at the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, Transportation and Commerce -- not to mention functionaries from the budget, trade, consumer protection and environmental protection offices. It's no small task.

Coming up with a new plan to protect American consumers would be a commendable thing, if those imports had always been safe and just started being a matter of concern within the past few months. The fact is, though, that the inspection of imported goods, especially foodstuffs, has long been a minimally attended matter -- mostly because looking the other way is cheaper for the government, for the companies that import things and for the consumer. At least until someone gets sick, hurt or killed, at which time it all becomes very expensive.

Leavitt's task force is supposed to report its findings to the White House within 60 days. Unless it can't, in which case it will be given all the time it requires.

Either way, it looks like another example of Bush leaving a mess to be cleaned up by his successors, whenever it is that that person wakes up and remembers that he, or she, now is the president.

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