It will take years of unprecedented collaboration for China and the United States to resolve distrust over the safety of each other's products, a top US official said Wednesday.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said an agreement signed a day earlier to increase oversight of Chinese manufacturers was just the beginning of a new era of necessary cooperation between the economic giants.
"We are at the beginning stage," Leavitt said. "To quote a Chinese saying, 'a man who would move a mountain starts by moving small stones,'" Leavitt told reporters on the sidelines of high-level bilateral trade talks.
Under two agreements signed Tuesday, China has vowed tighter supervision of a range of food items, farming feed, drugs and medical devices, including some that have been at the centre of the safety scares.
Chinese producers of the affected products must register with local authorities and submit to annual inspections to ensure US standards are met. Results of such checks will be shared with the United States.
"This issue will not be concluded a year from now. It will not be finished in five years or 10 years. This will require continuous improvement."
The safety of Chinese products has been thrown into doubt in recent months by a series of scandals involving product categories as diverse as toys, tyres toothpaste and clothes, as well as food.
Leavitt said the two sides will have to come together on common product quality standards to build trust so that policing of product quality does not fall to inspectors in each country, as more stringent checks will slow trade.
"Inspections are not the key, so we need to know who we can trust," he said.
President George W. Bush's administration has been under pressure to act amid regular reports of dangerous Chinese imports.
Leavitt's comments came at the two-day Strategic Economic Dialogue, a twice-a-year event that discusses long-term trade issues between the two sides.