China may be a trade giant but ineffective controls have kept it a quality weakling and are sapping competitiveness, the nation's safety watchdog said, as fears grow in the United States about the made-in-China label.

His comments were reported a day after China said it would send officials to the United States this month and next to cool worries stemming from a series of scandals over tainted exports, from toothpaste to pet food and toys containing lead paint.

The latest scare has prompted U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who has stridently criticized Chinese trade practices, to call on the State Department to exert pressure on China to open up toy manufacturing plants to U.S. inspections.

Recommendations are due next month on U.S. President George Bush's desk from a new import safety panel, and lawmakers have already floated a raft of bills aimed at beefing up import oversight.

Li Changjiang, head of the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, warned officials that failure to improve quality was undermining national trade strength, the official People's Daily reported on Thursday.

We may have entered the ranks of big traders but we're still far, far from being a strong trade power, and the fundamental reason is that our product quality competitiveness is not strong, he said in comments to officials a few days ago.

Quality is a symbol of national strength, he said.

Li's call for tougher regulation of manufacturers appeared as Beijing grapples with another massive recall of Chinese-made toys found to fail U.S. safety standards.

Mattel Inc, the largest U.S. toy company, this week recalled 18.2 million toys globally, including 9.5 million in the United States. The toys were recalled due to hazards from small, powerful magnets and lead paint.


A spokesman for China's Commerce Ministry defended the country's safety standards and said they would investigate reported problems.

But he also repeated what is becoming a standard government line that foreign media are blowing the issue out of proportion.

There is some media and irresponsible people groundlessly attacking the overall quality of Chinese goods, citing problems with specific products, Wang Xinpei told a news conference.

Media reports can't see the overall picture. They use individual cases to describe the overall situation, and some even deliberately go over the top in coverage, he said. They are not rational and some are even malicious.

Earlier this month, Mattel's Fisher-Price unit recalled about 1.5 million preschool toys made by contract manufacturer Lee Der Industrial Co. Ltd. because the paint on the toys might contain excessive amounts of lead.

News of the second recall came soon after an owner of the Lee Der factory at the centre of the first recall was reported to have committed suicide.

A Lee Der manager told local papers in the southern province Guangdong, where the manufacturer has factories, that the company had used a batch of yellow paint falsely certified by a longtime supplier as lead-free.

Li, whose agency has been at the centre of the uproar, blamed deep-seated problems that he said demanded a rethink of economic priorities, including backward production methods and weak overall competitiveness.

To transform the concept of development and reinvent the development model we must give even greater prominence to quality problems, he said.

(Additional reporting by Zhou Xin and Ben Blanchard)