As the U.S. and Chinese governments crack down on unsafe toy exports, one American government product-safety regulator has been telling audiences in China that the ultimate solution must come from the global toy industry, not from government.
Richard O'Brien, head of international programs with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the top government agency on product safety issues in the United States, told an audience in Hong Kong that there are limits to what government can do to solve problems like last year's toy recalls.
``I think what we're looking at these days is the realization that more and more, industry has to be the solution to this problem - it can't be government,'' he told industry officials during a Jan. 9 seminar at the Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair. ``I would go so far as to say that if you had an entire army of government inspectors looking for safety problems, you wouldn't accomplish 100 percent compliance.
``What we need is 100 percent participation by the industry,'' he said. ``We have to have end-to-end built-in industry best practices.''
O'Brien also sat down for an interview Jan. 14 with Plastics News in U.S. Consulate offices in Guangzhou, China, as he wrapped up a two-week trip to China that included meetings with Chinese toy manufacturing groups and factory tours.
His official purpose, he said, was to explain the role of consumer activism in driving product-safety regulation in the United States and argue against misconceptions in China that the recalls were driven by rising trade tensions, rather than safety concerns.
For O'Brien, who also had visited China in November, the January trip included a chance to take the temperature of the issue.
Since the recalls, he said, China has begun changing how it looks at product safety, shifting away from traditional heavy reliance on government inspectors in factories and pushing industry to modernize and adopt better quality-control systems on its own.
``Over the past eight months or so, I think the Chinese government may have discovered that they can't solve the problem by deploying more inspectors,'' he said ``They have to solve the problem by changing the way industry behaves.''
Still, governments are taking action. The U.S. government is likely to enact tough new toy-safety legislation early this year, and China has closed down suspect toy factories. The U.S. toy industry also says it is close to finishing a tougher inspection and testing protocol and asking the U.S. government to make it mandatory for all toys.
O'Brien said he's seen a range of factories in China, from very poor to very good.
He visited the factory making the Aqua Dots toy beads, at the heart of one of the recalls. For him, the visit illustrated the limits of China's system of inspectors, who visit each export factory and certify its products, he said.
CPSC pulled Aqua Dots craft kits from U.S. stores after they were discovered to contain a chemical that caused some children to vomit and become comatose after ingesting them.
``When I went to the Aqua Dots factory, I saw a factory that theoretically had received an export permit ... for the product and I had to ask myself, how could that have happened?'' O'Brien said. ``We know that it contained a banned substance.
``That goes back to my point that I keep making, [that] you can't expect inspectors to know everything. They can't possibly have a checklist long enough to cover every banned substance in every export market they are supposed to inspect for.''
Other factories he visited, he said, were very modern and put a lot of time into inspection and testing. Chinese toy manufacturing groups told him they also are making changes, he said.
``I've heard from Chinese toy associations and I've heard from some factory management, that they get it and that they are trying hard to make the changes that have to be made,'' he said. ``The proof will be in a sustained track record we have not yet seen.''
Of course the issue of where fault lies in the toy recall debate is a hot one.
Chinese officials point to design flaws in some products, such as Mattel dolls where several children required surgery after swallowing loose magnets. They say the hazards came not from problems in China manufacturing but Mattel's poor design. And some observers argue that the constant push for low prices has squeezed all players to the point where mistakes are too common.
O'Brien said CPSC data show that Chinese products constitute a disproportionate share of recalls of products imported into the U.S., but he did not know why.
CPSC said that 61 percent of the total recalls it announced from October 2006 to September 2007 were for products made in China; and for toys in that same 12-month period, the percentage is even higher: 53 of 61 total toy recalls were for toys made in China.
Chinese officials, however, defend their product quality and say the problems are isolated.
A Chinese official at the Hong Kong toy fair said that inspectors in Guangdong Province, China's toy-making capital, for example, checked 450,000 batches of products from January to October and found just 752 batches that were substandard - less than 1 percent.
``The toys made are of high quality but there could be isolated issues of quality,'' said Li Qing-xiang, deputy director of the Guangdong Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau. ``Some people do intentionally break the rules. Government needs to combat that.''
Li said China put quality standards in place in the early 1990s, but over time some companies loosened their practices and have been reluctant to reinvest in management and quality, including some foreign firms. His agency's response has been more inspections, tighter rules on hazardous substances and increased liability for manufacturers of unsafe products, he said.
Chinese government agencies said last week that a quality check in three provinces and Chongqing city found that 12.5 percent of toys in the country's domestic market were substandard. More than 600 of 3,000 Chinese toy firms have had their export licenses revoked, Chinese media reported.
While progress is being made and most products coming from China are safe, more needs to be done, O'Brien said.
``The amount of unsafe and defective product coming out of China is certainly statistically in the extreme minority,'' he said. ``But the fact that we still have a significant amount of product that doesn't meet the safety standards, as evidenced by the recalls over the summer, means that [for] whoever is not complying, we need to tighten up.''