Mattel, the world’s largest toy company, today announced its second major recall in a month of defective toys that were made in China.
The company, in a statement issued from its American headquarters, said it was recalling a total of 436,000 toys marketed in the United States and elsewhere that had “impermissible levels of lead.” The toy is a die-cast vehicle featuring the Sarge character from the movie “Cars.”
In addition, the company said it was expanding a recall of toys that have small, powerful magnets that could come loose and be ingested by children.
The latest recalls are another major embarrassment for Mattel. Mattel has a reputation for being one of the most conscientious toy makers and is known for having sophisticated inspection and testing systems at many of its China facilities to guard against flawed, defective or tainted products.
But the latest recall could feed growing international worries about the quality and safety of consumer products made in China.
It would follow a series of other recalls by manufacturers this year involving a wide range of products from contaminated pet food ingredients to defective tires to tainted Chinese-made toothpaste.
Mattel began an advertising campaign today in an effort to reassure consumers about its commitment to product safety. It ran full-page ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today that featured a letter from Bob Eckert, the chief executive.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our children,” the letter begins.
“Our long record of safety at Mattel is why we’re one of the most trusted names with parents,” it says. “And I am confident that the actions we are taking now will maintain that trust.”
Earlier this month, Mattel recalled over one million toys, including Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer products made by its Fisher-Price unit because they were contaminated with excessive levels of lead paint, which if ingested could pose health hazards to children.
Mattel said Lee Der Industrial, a contract manufacturer based in southern China, was responsible for producing the toys that contained excessive levels of lead paint in the initial recall.
Mattel stopped accepting goods from the contractor, and last week the Chinese government revoked Lee Der’s export license.
In a further twist, the Chinese authorities confirmed that one of the owners of the company apparently committed suicide.
The owner, Zhang Shuhong, apparently killed himself last Saturday by hanging himself in a factory warehouse in the city of Foshan, according to a report in China’s state-controlled media.
A spokesman for the Guangdong Public Security Bureau in southern China today confirmed that the police were investigating the apparent suicide.
Xiao Bindong, a spokesman for the bureau, said: “It is now confirmed that Mr. Zhang Shuhong committed suicide on the afternoon of August 11.”
China, however, insists the vast majority of its exports are safe and of high quality. Many international toy industry officials also say that while the recalls are serious, the problem with defective toys made in China is being grossly exaggerated.
“There are something like 30,000 different toy products on sale at any one time,” says Ian J. Anderson, the Asia Pacific director at SGS, a consumer testing company that works with Mattel and other toy makers in China. “How many items have been recalled lately? Anyone can have something go awry. It’s difficult to stay on top of everything.”
But United States congressmen and consumer product safety officials from the European Union have expressed growing concern in recent months over the number of defective and tainted products coming from China, which makes most of the world’s toys.
Last month, a pair of senators from the United States even proposed new legislation that sought to ban imported children’s products from China unless they were first certified as safe.
Responding to such criticism, the Chinese government says it is now stepping up its inspection of toys and other products and that it is cracking down on companies that act illegally.
In revoking the export license of Lee Der Industrial, which made the tainted Mattel toys, Chinese regulators said they found the company had used a “fake lead-free” paint pigment that came from the company’s paint supplier.
At the time of the recall, Mattel officials said the Lee Der facility had testing equipment on site that should have detected lead paint, and that the company had been a reliable supplier for at least 15 years.
Mattel has not yet explained what went wrong. But Monday, the company issued a brief statement saying the company was saddened to hear about the death of the Lee Der official.
The recalls, however, underscore the problems facing toy makers and other companies doing business in China. China has become a manufacturing powerhouse by depending on cheap labor and savvy cost cutting measures.
But sometimes, under pressure to cut costs or win contracts, Chinese manufacturers have cut corners, experts here say, and chosen to use cheap and illegal substitutes.
In June, for instance, another major toy company, the RC2 Corporation of Illinois, recalled 1.5 million popular Thomas & Friends wooden toy railway sets because for at least two years they were being coated with excessive levels of lead paint, even though the manufacturers were aware of restrictions on lead paint, RC2 officials later said.
In case after case involving Chinese made products that were recalled this year, there has been evidence that many Chinese manufacturers intentionally added cheap or illegal substances to save money.
While lead paint has long been restricted from being used in toys made for sale in the United States, Europe and even China, it remains much cheaper than lead-free paint. Companies here say lead paint is sometimes preferred because it offers richer colors, is easier to apply and easier to dry. And so some companies continued to blend it into paint supplies, according to toy consultants.
High levels of lead have also been found in Chinese made jewelry and trinkets, posing serious health hazards, according to American officials.