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“Made in China” toys under siege

Updated On: Aug 17, 2007

Christmas may be without cheers for toy manufacturers in China, and customers in USA as the world’s largest toy maker, Mattel, issued one of its largest recalls of toys from die-cast toy vehicles to Polly Pocket dolls to Big Bird and Elmo and Batman action figures.

What triggered the recalls was the discovery of lead paint used in toy products from its Fisher-Price Unit.  436,000 Chinese-made die-cast toy vehicles were also found to have “impermissible levels of lead”.  Following this, Mattel also recalled toys with small magnets after discovering potential safety problems.

With its reputation bruised as it pride itself for tightly controlling production in China, Mattel has announced step-up measures to ensure safety of their products before they are released to stores. 

Following Mattel’s recalls, other toy companies are also re-examining their operations in China. Hasbro has increased the level of its safety checks. Lawsuits are also awaiting Thomas & Friends toy trains for problems inherent in the products. Companies like Mattel are retooling their strategies including shifting more of their toy production into factories they own and operate — and away from Chinese contractors and sub-contractors.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is negotiating with the toy industry to conduct broader testing of imported toys, said Nancy A. Nord, the commission’s acting chairwoman. “In today’s environment, it is easy to take recalls out of proportion,” she said. “By no means is it the largest recall this agency has done, and it represents only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of toys that are sold in the United States every year.”

With the woes unresolved in the Chinese toy manufacturing industry, manufacturers of American-made toys are enjoying a boom. “It’s created a lot of buzz,” said Mike Rainville, owner of Maple Landmark toys in MiddleburyVt., who said his company had experienced a “nudge” in sales. “We expect the impact to manifest itself more as time goes on.” “Our brand is clearly made in Vermont,” he said. “So people understand almost inherently that what is going on in China is different from what we’re doing.”

A top US senator called for the inspection of all Chinese toys imported into the United States. "We can't wait any longer for China to crack down on its lax safety standards," said Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the US Senate. "This needs to stop now before more children and more families are put at risk," he said. "The time to talk is over. It's now time to act."

The Chinese side is getting nervous about the increasing recalls. "We knew about the situation, because since March some toys had been recalled due to magnetic parts problems," said an official with the China Toy Association, who declined to be identified. China banned two factories from exporting toys while the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Light Industrial Products and Arts and Crafts has asked its members to publicly sign a pledge to improve quality.

The Chinese government has also pledged to step up checks and “severely punish” any errant manufacturers.  "The Chinese government will continue to adopt a series of measures to further improve the quality and safety of its products," the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said. "Supervision and quarantine authorities across China will step up their efforts on spot checks. We will not tolerate the rare cases of illegal production and exports, and we are determined to crack down on them."

While acknowledging the need to get tough over unsafe products, China also hit out at foreign media for playing up the problems with Chinese products. Commerce Ministry spokesman, Wang Xinpei also suggested that China should not bear all the blame, saying that “those who import and sell the toys should pay close attention to quality at all levels”.  Some Chinese state media reports also implied that companies like Mattel are trying to shift the blame for unsafe products to China

However, at the end of it, the Chinese government resolved that attached great importance to the issue of product safety and it would “step up liaison and pragmatically solve problems through dialogue, negotiations and investigations, and to promote the smooth and healthy development of Sino-US trade development,"

While the recalls have dominated international headlines and occupied much of policymakers’ time and headache in Beijing, other old trade issues continue to simmer. The United States has asked the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to mediate a copyright trade dispute with China. 'The United States and China have tried, through formal consultations over the last three months, to resolve differences arising from US concerns about inadequate protection of intellectual property rights in China,' Mr Sean Spicer, spokesman for the US Trade Representative's (USTR) office, said. 'That dialogue has not generated solutions to the issues we have raised, so we are asking the WTO to form a panel to settle this dispute.'

Even more problematic for bilateral economic relations is the potential of dual use technologies that are applicable in civilian/commercial and military sectors to become sparks that create additional tensions between the two countries. One such technology is in the satellite industry. 'It is not inconceivable that within about three years we can be challenged at a near peer level in a region,' said Lieutenant General Kevin Campbell, head of the US Army's Space and Missile Defence Command. 'That means taking out a number of communications capabilities over a theater of war,' he added. 'A lot of countries have pieces of what I've described, but I would say I'm more concerned about China than any of them,' he said.

Sino-US relations look set to go through a rough patch as both countries tried to manage the fallout from issues ranging from product safety to intellectual property rights to technological challenges. (17 August 2007)

Sources:

China vows to get tough over unsafe products (Straits Times, 17 August 2007)

China pledges to improve product safety (Channelnewsasia, 15 August 2007)

US military sees looming China threat to satellites (Channelnewsasia, 15 August 2007)

WTO asked to step into Sino-US copyright dispute  (Channelnewsasia, 15 August 2007)

Close to 30 types of toys in Singapore affected by Mattel recall (Channelnewsasia, 15 August 2007)

China toy group says was aware of problems (Reuters, 15 August 2007)

China, Unregulated (NY Times, 15 August 2007)

Some Baby Bibs Said to Contain Levels of Lead (NY Times, 15 August 2007)

Trouble in China Is Good News for American Toy Manufacturers (NY Times, 15 August 2007)

Mattel Recalls 19 Million Toys Sent From China (NY Times, 14 August 2007)

Beijing reporter gets jail for fake buns story (AP, 13 August 2007)

China Enacting a High-Tech Plan to Track People (NY Times, 12 August 2007)