Thursday, September 6, 2007

Mattel toy recall: a case for banning imports of Chinese toys ?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, toys for kids were handcrafted, and made of wood. The seven dwarfs, the fairies, elves, and other denizens of a child’s universe, were just what one would expect them to look - small and cute, with an eye to detail, and lots of realism.

Enter Fisher-Price, Mattel, and other toy companies, and they began producing in plastic, and to cut costs and appeal to mass markets, they did the inevitable – move production to Asia, mainly China.

As a result quality dropped, not only because of the Chinese, but because of the cost cutting, I guess. The Barbie dolls, owned by my daughter, broke in weeks, and soon she found greater interest in cuddly rag dolls and stuffed toys, rather than in big-breasted Barbie dolls.

The toy companies that handcrafted their toys with high quality materials were however priced out of the market. Some of them thrived in niches, designing products for the super-rich.

In the meantime, the Chinese got into their own toy design and manufacture of toys, and flooded markets around the world with low-cost, easily broken toys of questionable aesthetics. Their prices were right though, and as a result by some estimates 80 percent of toys imported to the US are from China. It is likely to be far higher in developing economies like India.

Mattel is likely to in time get its quality checks back in place, and put the embarrassment of the repeated recalls of its products, behind it. Let me point out here that bad products and recalls not only hurt company bottom lines, but a lot of kids who have already handled these unsafe gizmos.

What is worse is that the vast majority of Chinese toys entering our markets do not however go through any internationally approved quality standards. They come from companies that are hardly known outside China.

Has anyone studied those toys extensively for lead in the paint, and other threats to children ? Is there a case for governments around the world to ban these toys before they hurt kids ? Does it make sense, at this point to protect domestic industries in various countries that have been so far producing wholesome toys, but could go extinct because of competition from China ? This is not protectionism. This is for our children.

Back to the new Mattel and Fisher-Price recall this week. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced this week that:

1)Mattel Recalls Various Barbie Accessory Toys Due to Violation of Lead
Paint Standard
2)Fisher-Price Recalls Geo Trax Locomotive Toys Due To Violation of
Lead Paint Standard
3)Fisher-Price Recalls Bongo Band Toys Due to Violation of Lead Paint

The recall involves various Barbie accessory toys that were manufactured between September 30, 2006 and August 20, 2007. The model names, product numbers and affected date code numbers are listed in a chart on CPSC's web site.

The recall by Fisher-Price involves the Geo Trax Freightway Transport and Geo Trax Special Track Pack locomotive toys. These toys are red with yellow paint on the ladder and horn details, CPSC said in a release. The recalled models were manufactured between July 31, 2006 and August 20, 2007 and have a date code between 212-6CK through 325-6CK or 001-7CK through 232-7CK marked on the bottom of the product. The packaging on the Freightway Transport model is marked H5705 and the packaging on the Special Track Pack model is marked K3013, CPSC said.

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