Parents, Toy Companies Stressed Over Major Toy Recall

August 8, 2007

Many American parents are facing a quandrary about what toys to buy their children following the recall by Mattel Inc. of almost 1 million Chinese-made toys because they may contain lead.

As if fears over contaminated toothpaste, poisoned pet food and faulty tires were not enough, the latest recall of Chinese-made products has anxious parents rummaging through toy chests to find tainted Big Birds and Dora the Explorer toys.

It also has stressed-out toy companies going through their inventory to see if their products are harmless. And it has China, again, insisting that its products are safe.

Last week, Mattel’s Fisher-Price brand announced it was recalling 83 types of toys — including the popular Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego characters — because their paint contains excessive amounts of lead. The recall involves 967,000 plastic preschool toys made by a Chinese vendor and sold in the United States between May and August.

“I’m less inclined to buy anything from China,” said Wendy Schneider-Fisher, of New Albany, Ohio, who was heading into a local Toys “R” Us. “And I’m upset our government doesn’t do more to stop it.”

Under current U.S. regulations, children’s products found to have more than 0.06 percent lead are subject to a recall.

For parents, replacing the tainted toys with ones they trust are safe could pose a problem: 80 percent of all toys are made in China.

“It seems like everything’s from China but if I could find a similar toy that was American made, I would definitely buy it even if it cost more,” said Allen Mayne, of Columbus, Ohio, who was shopping at a local Toys “R” Us for his 9-year-old daughter.

“I think it would be in everyone’s best interests to look for American-made products, stuff you can feel confident about, stuff that’s just not the cheapest junk that you can get,” he said.

With discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. waging price wars, the pressure has been on toy companies to cut costs by producing cheaper toys in China. With exceptions like Mattel, which estimates that about 50 percent of its production in China is made in company-owned plants, many toy companies turn to contract factories, a cheaper alternative.

The recent toy recall follows the June recall by RC2 Corp. of 1.5 million wooden railroad toys and set parts from its Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway product line because of lead paint. Those toys were also made in China.

Industry experts are worried there will be more toy recalls to come, and fear parents will be more skeptical when buying holiday toys, even avoiding Chinese products altogether.

“Everyone is concerned that this could really undermine the traditional toy business if consumers think that the toys are unsafe,” said New York-based toy consultant Chris Byrne.

Mattel, considered by experts as a role model in how to do business in China, remained in crisis control Thursday.

The company contends the recall was “fast-tracked,” allowing it to quarantine two-thirds of the toys before they even made it to stores. Still, executives are trying to find out how this situation happened.

“There is an extreme sense of urgency,” said David Allmark, general manager of Fisher-Price.

Jim Walter, senior vice president of worldwide quality assurance for Mattel, is heading to China to meet with vendors.

China also moved to clear up another blot on its reputation.

“China has always conducted international trade in the spirit of being responsible to its trade partners and itself,” China’s Commerce Minister Bo Xilai said in a statement published Thursday on the ministry’s Web site. “Ninety-nine percent of China’s exports are good and safe.”

There is also increasing pressure for government regulation of the U.S. toy industry.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin introduced a bill last month that he contended would dramatically expand the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s ability to protect the public. Another piece of legislation, introduced by Durbin and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson would require third-party testing of imported and domestic toys and goods designed for children 5 years old or younger.

The CPSC now allows manufacturers to inspect and approve their own children’s products.

“We need better regulation of the toy industry. Until then, parents are going to have to be the watchdogs,” said Joanne Oppenheim, president of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, which produces an annual independent toy guide.

Hasbro Inc. said in a statement, it “maintains stringent quality control standards in all aspects of the manufacturing process, in both Hasbro-owned factories as well as factories that are contracted to produce Hasbro-branded product.”

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group that produces the “Sesame Street” TV program said Thursday it plans independent audits and other steps in an attempt to hold licensees to the highest health and safety standards.

Retailers including KB Toys Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Toys “R” Us Inc. said they removed all the affected products off the shelves in recent days, but they are left to contend with shoppers’ concerns.

“I’m going to pay much more attention to what I’m giving my children. I absolutely would pay more for ‘green’ toys,” said Schneider-Fisher.

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