Tariffs on Chinese-made car seats and baby gates could put children at risk, industry worries

China’s role as manufacturer of juvenile products is so important, switching suppliers could force price increases and imperil safety, experts testified

A shipping container is offloaded from the Hong Kong based CSCL East China Sea container ship at the Port of Oakland on June 20, 2018 in Oakland, California. U.S. president Donald Trump’s trade policy imposing escalating tariffs with China could impact the price of baby gates and child car seats, putting low-income families at risk, industry leaders said during testimony at the U.S. International Trade Commission. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A shipping container is offloaded from the Hong Kong based CSCL East China Sea container ship at the Port of Oakland on June 20, 2018 in Oakland, California. U.S. president Donald Trump’s trade policy imposing escalating tariffs with China could impact the price of baby gates and child car seats, putting low-income families at risk, industry leaders said during testimony at the U.S. International Trade Commission. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Posted June 18, 2019 at 11:04am

The administration’s trade policy ran head on into infant safety on Monday as U.S. juvenile products suppliers argued to a panel of U.S. regulators that tariffs on car seats and baby gates could put children in low-income families at risk.

“Our message to American families should be clear,” said Lisa Trofe, of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. “The importance of this trade war does not exceed the importance of baby safety.”

[Trump’s tariffs on China won’t have much of an effect, IMF says]

Trofe was joined by several U.S. companies in asserting that China’s role as a manufacturer of juvenile products was so important that switching suppliers would be difficult and time consuming, forcing merchants to raise prices and imperil infant safety.

Not only did Monday’s hearing, the first in a series on the Trump administration’s proposal to impose tariffs on another $300 billion in China-origin imports, touch on a wide range of products, but the interagency panel also heard a range of messages — from hold the tariffs to bring it on.

The panel is known as a Section 301 committee for the provision of 1974 trade law that gives the U.S. authority to enforce trade agreements and address “unfair” barriers to exports. The hearings at the U.S. International Trade Commission will continue for seven days and take testimony from 55 panels of more than 300 witnesses.

Loading the player...

Trofe reminded the panel that many products for juveniles had been left off the administration’s previous lists of tariffs and should be excluded again.

Bradley Mattarocci, of Baby Trend Inc., said that with so many young parents living on modest incomes — the association estimated that 50 percent of baby gear buyers have household incomes of less than $50,000 a year — many would resort to old car seats that do not meet newer standards or would sleep with their children rather than buy compliant cribs.

Mark Flannery, of Minnesota based Regalo International, said that his company had sought other possible suppliers of the child safety gates and play yards that make up much of its product line, but had found factories in Vietnam and elsewhere uncompetitive in part based on the low cost of steel in China.

“At this point we have no other viable option but China to produce our products,” Flannery said.

But not all baby products are produced overseas, and some witnesses delivered a more nuanced message.

Dorel Juvenile Group operates a factory in Columbus, Ind., that produces three million child car seats a year but could produce 30 percent more, said Dorel’s Timothy Gallogly. Gallogly did not take a position on whether the tariff should include juvenile products, but he urged USTR to include components, too, if it does impose tariffs.

Most witnesses testified against more tariffs, but Mike Branson, of Atlanta-based Rheem Manufacturing Co., told the panel that Chinese companies are disrupting the U.S. heating and air conditioning market and dodging tariffs by sending components to the U.S. before re-assembling them into full systems.

Branson said Chinese exports to the U.S. market were up 40 percent in the first four months of the year, reaching more than $400 million. Rheem still produces its equipment in U.S. plants and would like to see tariffs imposed to protect U.S. production, he said.

Other manufacturers argued for keeping access to Chinese factories open because of the effort they have put into developing suppliers that can meet regulations or demanding specifications for quality.

U.S companies that import plumbing products or inputs for U.S.-made goods must have assurances that suppliers can meet standards necessary for industry certifications and state and local building codes, said Kerry Stackpole, of Plumbing Manufacturers International, an industry association.

For instance, regulations require lead-free fixtures, and plumbers rely on long-term relationships with suppliers to ensure that products meet those standards, Stackpole said.

Americans also expect quality footwear to protect their feet, said Marc Schneider, of New York-based Kenneth Cole. With 69 percent of shoes in the U.S. market Chinese-made, there is no other country with the skills and capacity to produce quality footwear on such a scale, Schneider said.

He also said that cost pressures on Chinese producers from a higher tariff could force them to cut corners and lower product quality, resulting in Americans’ wearing sub-standard shoes.

Schneider, like several witnesses, warned that increasing tariffs by 25 percent would result in price increases to consumers, saying the cost of footwear could go up from 25 percent to 50 percent.