SINGAPORE_U.S. food and drug regulators will start working in China next month once Beijing gives its final approval, the top U.S. health official said Tuesday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the Food and Drug Administration is planning to open an office in China as part of a change in strategy following product safety problems in Chinese imports that prompted several health scares and have been linked to some deaths.

“In the past, the United States and many other countries have employed a strategy of standing at the border trying to catch things that aren’t safe,” Leavitt said in an AP interview during a visit to Singapore.

However, he said it is impossible to inspect all of the massive amounts of goods that enter the country.

“So we’re changing our strategy from one of trying to catch unsafe products to building safety into the products,” Leavitt said. “Our purpose is not just inspection, it’s building capacity and maintaining relationships between regulators.”

The FDA’s China office will be headed by Christopher Hickey, currently director of the Asia and the Pacific office at the Department of Health and Human Services, Leavitt said.

Hickey, who was with Leavitt in Singapore, said Washington is still awaiting final approval from the Chinese government on the opening of the FDA’s office there, but that the agency expected to begin work in May before the official opening of the office in October.

No further details were given, but the agency had earlier said they planned to establish eight permanent FDA positions at U.S. diplomatic posts in China. The FDA also said it would hire five Chinese employees in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

U.S. regulators have recalled a number of contaminated products made in China: toothpaste, pet food, the blood thinner heparin and others. Heparin, a commonly used blood thinner, has been linked to 62 deaths and hundreds of allergic reactions in the U.S. and Germany.

About 40 percent of pharmaceuticals and 80 percent of the chemical ingredients in drugs are imported, according to U.S. government statistics. A growing share comes from developing countries such as China, India and Mexico that are still building their own drug safety systems.

Leavitt said the U.S expects to build a presence in a number of other countries, including India and those of the Central American region. He said the safety of food and product imports is “a global problem” driven by a rapid increase in goods being produced and consumed across borders.

“We’ve started a conversation with the Indian government but no conclusions have been reached,” he said, adding that the amount of pharmaceutical trade between the United States and India has grown rapidly and that there are now up to 100 FDA-inspected facilities in India.

“Many of the products that are innovations of American science and American pharmaceutical companies are now being produced in India,” he said. “So that requires us to be where products are being developed and being produced.”

Click on video to hear lecture at Stanford Graduate School of Business

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—U. S. medical products firm ATL manufactures a battery-operated, handheld sonar device that’s selling briskly in rural India and Asia. The portable machine enables doctors examining pregnant women to determine the gender of the unborn. And in those countries, unwanted female fetuses may be aborted.

What’s an ethical company to do?

That’s just one of the dilemmas discussed while exploring “Academic vs. Real World Ethics,” during a session led February 6 by political scientist David Brady. The program was sponsored by the Business School Alumni Association’s Lifelong Learning program and the Stanford Law School.

“The fundamental question is: Do corporations have a responsibility beyond maximizing profits? As the world gets more global, managers are more and more being put in these situations and there’s no one” to go to for solutions, said Brady, the Business School’s Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Professor of Political Science and Leadership Values.

Rather than come up with hard answers, Brady often raised more questions as he tossed ideas back and forth with the audience of Business and Law School grads who run their own companies.

“Sex selection is against the law in India and China. They just aren’t enforcing this,” said Brady. “Is there a right to sell a product that’s approved by law and highly beneficial? How do we address the conflict between rights? The question is: Does the good outweigh the bad?”

The controversial nature of the ATL product has prompted some professors not to use it as a classroom case study, Brady said, while some students have told him the situation described makes them uncomfortable. To that, Brady responded: “That is what I am supposed to do. Twenty years from now, you’re going to be running a company and there will be some issues that come up and you can’t say, ‘that makes me uncomfortable, let’s not talk about it.’ ”

In early 1998, ATL spun off its SonoSight division, maker of the handheld units, as an independent public company, which now sells through distributors in China and India. Later that same year, ATL was sold to Royal Philips Electronics, becoming part of the company’s Philips Medical Systems subsidiary.

Another case that sparked debate was an unnamed American manufacturer of a low-cost kerosene heater. Safety features are included in the product sold in the United States, but not in the version of the heater that same company sold to the Turkish government, raising a greater possibility of accidents.

What action should the company take?

“I came out on the grounds that the Turkish government is in the best position to know what the tradeoffs are between keeping people in those huts in the mountains warm versus the danger of accidents,” Brady said

One audience member had a different approach. “I would think the value of a Turkish life is equal to the value of an American one,” he said. “As CEO, I would not be comfortable taking the safety features off.”

If the first company refused to sell the stripped-down product to the Turkish government, another company would likely oblige, observed another participant. Yet another pondered if the company should cover the extra cost of adding safety features to the Turkish products.

Another asked for more facts. “The information you don’t have is how many people are dying from the cold relative to the danger that they would perish in a fire caused by the kerosene lantern. Who are we to say that we’re going deny them the right to buy a kerosene lantern that would save 10 people at the risk of .1 percent of them perishing?” said the participant.

The program also pondered the ethics of illegal music downloads or whether an American couple should spend five figures to expand their home when that money could improve the lives of an entire village in some developing nation.

Brady added an observation on human nature.

People who are made to feel good tend to treat others better, he said. “If you’re standing outside a bakery with the smell of fresh bread in the air, you are more likely to help a stranger than if you are standing outside a neutral smelling dry goods store. If someone drops papers outside a phone booth, you will be more willing to help them if you have just found a dime in the coin return slot than if you didn’t.