Top U.S. regulator says toy safety is improving

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HONG KONG (Jan. 16, 3:10 p.m. ET) — Toys are much safer in the U.S. since a wave of recalls in 2007 and 2008, but manufacturers should be focusing on better toy design to continue to reduce hazards, the top U.S. toy safety regulator told a Hong Kong conference Jan. 11.

Inez Moore Tenenbaum, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, told the Hong Kong Toys Industry Conference that recalls have dropped markedly, as government and industry have put more emphasis on the issue. The conference was held as part of the Hong Kong Toy Fair.

But Tenenbaum also said problems remain, and she urged toy makers now to focus on design issues such as parts that come off easily and become choking hazards.

Toy recalls in the U.S. have declined for three years, from 172 in 2008, to 50 in 2009, 46 in 2010 and 34 last year, she said.

“The toy industry has made great progress in recent years,” Tenenbaum said. “The state of toy safety is strong. It’s strong because of the actions of many of you in this room. But you cannot let your guard down because the customers in America, your largest trading market, have high expectations.”

Governments in the U.S. and Europe enacted tougher toy safety laws after some high-profile recalls in 2007, including putting in place new restrictions on phthalate levels in plastic toys and use of heavy metals.

But that’s not enough, Tenanbaum said, because most toy safety problems stem from the toy’s design.

She cited a university study that looked at toy recalls in the United States over more than a decade, and which concluded that more than 70 percent of safety problems could be traced to bad design — like sharp edges, small detachable parts, batteries that children can easily access, or buttons or string that present choking or strangling hazards. Those design problems would make a toy unsafe whether it was manufactured in China or the U.S., she said.

A Hong Kong toy industry association leader told the conference that the declining number of recalls showed that Chinese toy factories met the new regulations.

“In the past few years, we did not have any exciting toy recall news,” said Wong Tit Shing, chairman of the Toys Advisory Committee of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. “This is a big success. I think a major factor of this success is understanding the regulations.”

Other toy industry executives said Chinese and Hong Kong plants must step up their investments in safety to meet new regulations.

Yeung Chi Kong, executive committee member of the Hong Kong Toys Council, said in a speech at the fair that new chemical safety rules from Europe and North America are big issues.

“I would really suggest factories set up your own chemical testing laboratories, to really save your costs in the long run,” said Yeung, who is also vice chairman of plastic toy maker Blue Box Group.

In the U.S., the CPSC, for its part, is expanding its presence in China, last year establishing its first office outside the United States, in Beijing.

Tenenbaum said that reflects the large role of China in manufacturing products for the U.S. market.

For example, she said that 90 percent of toys imported into the U.S. come from China. That’s a big reason, she said, for making her second consecutive January trip to speak to the Hong Kong Fair. This year’s fair was held Jan. 9-12.