Nearly a million plastic toys coated with potentially hazardous paint are being pulled from shelves across the globe, including China, whose reputation has been battered for shoddy production among a spate of product safety incidents this summer.
The same day the Chinese government took more than a dozen Western journalists on a tour of three toy factories in Guangdong Province, Mattel Inc. announced its third massive recall in six weeks. China has been hoping to assure the world of its commitment to stringent production and better quality.
The toy industry leader based in El Segundo, Calif., is recalling 848,000 toys, including eight play-set accessories for Barbie dolls - its biggest seller - and three Fisher Price toys.
The Barbie accessories include a Barbie Dream Puppy House, which used lead paint on the dog; a Barbie Dream Kitty Condo play set, with lead paint on the cat; and a Barbie table and chairs kitchen play set, with lead paint on the dog and dinner plates.
The recalled Fisher Price toys are two GeoTrax locomotives and the 6-in-1 Bongo Band from the Big Big World line.
With half of its global sales sourced from Chinese vendors, Mattel this time named four Chinese subcontractors that used uncertified paint.
The company was aware of its vendors subcontracting work to those third-party manufacturers, according to Mattel spokeswoman Michele Sturdivant.
``Once we discovered that these subcontractors violated Mattel's standards, we immediately terminated all relationships,'' she said in a Sept. 5 telephone interview.
One subcontractor, Boyi Plastic Products Factory, did not use certified paint that was supplied by Mattel vendor Apex Manufacturing Co. Ltd. Instead, Boyi used paint containing impermissible levels of lead on components for two GeoTrax toys. Although Boyi is no longer in business, the parts it made between July and September 2006 were stored and incorporated into Mattel's production throughout the year. Mattel said it is being cautious and recalling toys shipped between Aug. 3, 2006, and July 31, 2007.
Mattel declined to reveal the levels of lead on the recalled toys.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission bans paint with more than 0.06 percent lead. Its spokeswoman Julie Vallese said the Mattel items with lead paint are small and don't pose a poisoning risk in themselves. ``But because lead is cumulative, you want to remove it from a child's environment each and every time you can,'' she told The Washington Post.
The latest recall includes 530,000 affected toys in the U.S. and 318,000 in Canada, Mexico, Asia, Europe and South America.
Mattel Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert Eckert told the news media last month there may be more recalls of tainted toys as the company shores up the probe into its China vendors.
As of now, Mattel said it has tested the majority of its toy lines, including all of its toys currently sourced from vendors.
``We hope that we don't have to recall any more products,'' Sturdivant said, ``but if we do, we will address the matter promptly and inform the public quickly.
``Prior to these events, we required paint and product to be tested. If these vendors and their subcontractors had adhered to our procedures, we wouldn't have this issue. We have instituted changes to our required procedures to catch cases of our policies not being adhered to, and to improve accountability,'' she said.
The Chinese government announced Sept. 5 that it is investigating the latest recall. An official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said the agency was trying to get details on the case.
Deputy Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng pointed out Aug. 23 that only 15 percent of Mattel's recalls at that point were prompted by lead paint.
Mattel's three recalls this summer, totaling 21 million pieces, did not involve the 10 factories it owns and operates. Five of Mattel's plants are located in China and the other five are in Mexico, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
AQSIQ officials will meet Sept. 10-11 with the CPSC in Washington to discuss compliance issues with U.S. safety standards in toys, electrical goods and other items.
China shipped 22 billion toy units from its manufacturing hubs along the Guangdong coastline to foreign markets in 2006. The country is also the second-largest trading partner of the U.S., after Canada.
Meantime, Mattel may be under investigation by the CPSC for whether or not it notified authorities of safety risks in time in the Aug. 14 recall.
Since 2001, the consumer safety agency twice has fined the world's largest toy maker for knowingly withholding information about its products, reported The Wall Street Journal.