Chinese factories make more than 70 percent of the world's toys, so top toy safety regulators in America and Europe came to the Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair recently with a message don't step back from the recent focus on safety.
Inez Moore Tenenbaum, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the United States, told a Jan. 12 forum connected to the toy fair that a tough new U.S. law in 2008 seems to have made toys safer, dropping recalls from 162 in 2008 to 41 last year.
The new U.S. law, which includes restrictions on phthalates used in some plastic toys, comes as the European Union last year unveiled its own rewrite of safety rules that will take effect starting in 2011. Other countries also have tightened laws following widespread problems with toys in 2007.
Tenenbaum said governments are not going to relax their focus. She said, for example, that troubling reports that some Chinese toy jewelry makers are now using cadmium as an inexpensive lead substitute demonstrated the need for continued government action.
For some Chinese toy companies, the new rules have meant a sizable economic hit, particularly at a time of continued weak markets.
Hong Kong injection molder Neu Kreations Ltd., for example, said the new U.S. rules have caused the company to more than double its spending on product testing, to about 5 percent of the price of the toy.
But the company, which makes educational toys in its Shenzhen, China, factory, said it cannot pass on those extra costs because of the poor economy.
Managing Director James Wong said in an interview at his booth at the Jan. 11-14 toy fair that he supports toy safety. But, he said, his small company has never had a recall and pays close attention to product-safety issues.
An executive at large Hong Kong toy maker Jetta Co. Ltd., which does injection molding at mainland Chinese factories, said that too much focus on cost cutting in the broader toy industry led companies to look for shortcuts.
Shortcuts can happen when someone at the top says we have to cut costs and be more effective, and being effective replaces safety, said Jetta Managing Director Wong Tit Shing.
Wong also is chairman of the Toys Advisory Committee of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, and was chairman of the Asian Committee of Toy Industries from 1999 to 2006.
The European Commission's top regulator of consumer protection issues said the problems of recent years have shown that toy and consumer-product safety have become too big for any one government to handle.
It takes a world ...
It is no longer really practical to undertake enforcement on a national or even regional level, said Meglena Kuneva, the EU's commissioner for consumer protection.
Kuneva said toy regulators around the world, including in China, have begun working much more closely together, and she called for a step change in market surveillance and information sharing between governments.
She said American and European regulators, for example, plan a formal agreement to share information on upcoming product recalls, and she said that more can be done to bring different global safety standards into harmony, including on testing methods.
Some industry participants at the forum, including U.S. toy maker Hasbro Inc., welcomed suggestions by governments to develop common safety standards, or at least find ways to lessen differences in national standards.
CPSC officials at the conference said they support that, and also said some of their toy safety priorities now include examining heavy-metal substitutes like cadmium, chemical exposure, choking hazards, strangulation and sharp points.
CPSC officials said they understand the complexity of some of the issues for manufacturers, and last month the group decided to delay enforcing some provisions of the new law while it certifies more testing labs around the world that are capable of evaluating toy safety to the new standards.
The U.S. government continues to focus on risks from additives in plastic toys, though. The CPSC last month, for example, convened a panel of scientists to look at the safety of three specific phthalates, used in some vinyl toys, after the 2008 safety law banned three other phthalates.
Another speaker also suggested that additional pressure for safer products will come from retailers, which he said can respond to safety concerns raised by consumers faster than governments.
Gerald Storch, chairman of U.S.-based retailer Toys R Us, Inc., said his company pulled plastic products containing bisphenol A from its shelves in 2008, ahead of U.S. legislation, because it was getting more and more complaints from consumers.
He acknowledged the science behind BPA is unsettled, but said it was not a debate the retailer wanted to wade into.
Many regulatory agencies are still saying BPA is safe, but there has been growing consumer concern, he said. We're not going to solve the science, but our customers are so concerned and we tend to be on the edge of that and just say, 'Forget it, get rid of the product.'
Storch said Toys R Us, which is the world's largest toy retailer with more than 1,500 stores in 34 countries, has internal safety standards that are tougher than government standards in some countries where it operates.
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