Mattel Trying to Piece Together Fault Lines with China After Recalls

Asia Pulse

October 1, 2007

Some experts and media have welcomed Mattel?s clarification of its recalls of Chinese toys as concern is growing that the design flaws have damaged the ?Made in China? label.

U.S. giant Mattel has recalled more than 21 million toys worldwide in recent weeks. Some of the recalls were ordered because of excessive levels of lead paint found in Chinese-made toys.

?Flaws in the manufacturing process at Chinese plants have been blamed for the (lead) problem, leading to a cavalcade of negative headlines in the U.S.,? said a report carried by the Wall Street Journal, noting that the vast majority of the recalled toys didn?t have a lead problem.

The biggest recall, affecting 18 million toys, involved tiny magnets that can fall off toys and can be deadly if swallowed. The recall of those toys had nothing to do with a failure of Chinese manufacturing but rather stemmed from Mattel?s own flawed designs, said the report.

Thomas Debrowski, an executive of Mattel, apologized recently to a senior Chinese official for the inconvenience it has caused to Chinese consumers after recalling millions of Chinese-made toys and pledged to take responsibility.

He admitted that the vast majority of the toys were recalled because of design flaws rather than manufacturing errors in China.

Mattel, the world largest toy-maker, also admitted that its lead-related recalls were ?overly inclusive? as the company was ?committed to applying the highest standards of safety for its products,? according to a statement released by the company.

The recalls have significantly damaged the reputation of the ?Made in China? label and led to a series of congressional hearings where China, along with U.S. regulators, were cast in a negative light, said some U.S. media.

Some conservative politicians, such as Senator Christopher J. Dodd, even proposed suspending imports of food and toys from China.

?There has been a cascade, and that?s caused a U.S. consumer perception crisis of China, not all of it justified,? Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Centre, was quoted as saying in a recent report by the Washington Post.

Dara O?Rourke, an associate professor of labor and environmental policy at the University of California-Berkeley, said Mattel used China as a scapegoat for its own problems and that the toy maker is now paying the price for that.

?There was a lot of scapegoating China, but I would argue that this was caused by a system that is designed to push down costs and speed up delivery. There are root causes, and Mattel is behind those,? he said.

Mattel?s apology also gained praise from some parents, including Arianna McRoberts, 41, of Los Angeles, the mother of two boys, 7 and 14. ?It?s unfortunate China got the bad rap, but I also think China needs to pay attention a little more carefully to their standards so they comply with American standards,? McRoberts was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

?China has received a lot of blame for the recalls in the West,? said Hari Bapuji, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada and lead author of the report, ?Toy Recalls?Is China the Problem??

His report, which analyzed Chinese-made toy recalls by going through recalls issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission from 1988 to August, 2007, found of the 550 toy recalls, 76.4% were due to problems that could be attributed to design flaws.

Of the hundreds of thousands of toys recalled by Mattel in the past month, 80% were because they contained small magnets, which is a design flaw, said the report.

However, all of the media focus has been on the lead paint issue, said Bapuji, who prepared the report with Paul W. Beamish, a professor of international business at the University of Western Ontario.

?Companies like Mattel have a responsibility to ensure that the products that they bring to China to be manufactured are safe and conform to the standards of this part of the world,? Bapuji said. ?They cannot simply escape the blame by saying ?It?s the manufacturer in China.??

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