By Jackie Crosby

Saying she has "serious concerns" about whether the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is properly equipped to protect the nation's children from the rush of toys and other products made in China, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Monday she would push for legislation that would strengthen the powers of the agency.

"It's clear that the current system is broken when it comes to keeping toxic toys out of the hands of children," said Klobuchar, who convened a forum at the Ridgedale Library in Minnetonka that included state legislators, a child-safety advocate, the head of the state pediatrics association and an expert on consumer protection laws.

About 70 to 80 percent of all toys sold in the United States are made in China, according to the Toy Industry Association. That's triple the level of three years ago, Klobuchar said. The volume also has also led to an alarming increase in the number of defects discovered. This year, all 24 recalled toys came from China.

One of the largest recalls was in May: about 1.5 million Thomas and Friends train and rail sets that were found to be coated in poisonous lead paint. On Friday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced three more recalls, including jewelry sets made with lead, building sets made with magnets and toy castles with parts loose enough to become choking hazards.

But with just 100 field investigators, Klobuchar said, the commission can't keep up. In 1980, the agency had 978 employees. Now it has 400.

"You have an increase [in products] from a country that doesn't have our standards of safety and you have no one watching the store in the United States," said Klobuchar, a freshman Democrat. She serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the commission. "We need to get our shop in order."

Before Congress' August break, she plans to introduce legislation to beef up staff at the commission and expand its recall authority to avoid delays that she blamed on a mostly voluntary system. She also could seek to make the agency more accountable for how well it gets the message out to consumers once dangerous products are identified.

Julie Vallese, a commission spokeswoman, said the agency welcomes additional funds for enforcement but wasn't convinced that changing the voluntary recall process was the answer. Through the existing process, recalls occur faster "because the agency and company work together to get the product out of the marketplace," Vallese said.

The commission has been responding to the exponential growth in Chinese imports since 2004 by conducting safety seminars and translating its standards book into Mandarin, Vallese said. Recently, the acting chairman visited China to discuss safety in children's products, electronics, fireworks and lighters. Manufacturers there are realizing that "safety sells," she said.

"The Chinese are beginning to understand that without safe products, their bottom line will be affected," she said. "They're highly motivated to be more attentive to the safety standards the U.S. has."

But major U.S. retailers put in their orders for holiday toys in January and February, and goods are either en route by ship or just arriving at import warehouses across the country. The bulk will have arrived by August. That new level of attentiveness may not yet have taken hold.

Twin Cities retail consultant Stan Pohmer said the industry hasn't made major adjustments in light of growing concerns about Chinese imports.

"If you're a major retailer, you're ratcheting up the microscope and maybe looking at products harder than before," he said. "But most of the larger, reputable retailers who have a buying office offshore will do their own independent testing, whether it's a beach chair or a toy or whatever. Many of them have stricter standards than the federal government has."

That includes retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, he said. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the company is confident in its suppliers. Target did not return calls for comment.

Tougher state laws

Nancy Cowles of the Chicago-based advocacy group Kids in Danger, who spoke at the Minnetonka forum, urged Klobuchar to put an end to "censorship" that she said prevents the commission from giving consumers information about unsafe products unless they have the company's permission. She also wants mandatory safety testing of products before they get to the market.

"Most people are surprised to learn that this country has no requirement for products, whether they be toys or cribs, be tested before they're sold," she said.

Cowles' group has successfully pushed seven states to pass the Children's Product Safety Act, which makes it illegal to sell, lease, rent or to enter into the stream of commerce products that have been recalled, including in licensed child care. The four Minnesota legislators at Klobuchar's meeting were looking at the safety act to possibly strengthen the state's existing laws.

Minnesota's laws already got a boost this session with a bill outlawing lead in jewelry. The legislation arose from the death of 4-year-old Jarnell Brown, who swallowed a lead charm that was tied to his new pair of Reebok sneakers.