It’s no longer child’s play in the toy industry these days. After a suicide and two massive global recalls by US toy-maker Mattel, the product safety issue has reached a boiling point.
On August 13, Zhang Shuhong, a Hong Kong native, was found hanged in a Lida Toy Factory warehouse in an apparent suicide. Zhang, who was boss of Lida, had seen the company lose more than US$30 million after Mattel recalled 1.5 million toys Lida helped manufacture. The toys in question, from Mattel’s Fisher-Price line, were coated in paint that contained potentially dangerous levels of lead.
Reports said that Lida was actually an exemplary contractor with an unblemished record so far. However, its paint supplier, said to be a close friend of Zhang’s, had been selling it the tainted coatings.
Just days later, Mattel announced another global recall of Chinese-made toys. Nearly half a million die-cast cars were ordered back – again over lead paint concerns – as well as 18 million toys containing magnets that could potentially be swallowed by children. Barbie and Batman figures were among those recalled.
Toys are the offenders in the latest in a series of scandals involving products made, wholly or partially, by China. At times, the back and forth between China and importer nations, particularly the US, had verged on the comical.
But Beijing is also making efforts to show the world that it is taking the issue seriously. A product safety commission has been set up, headed by Vice Premier Wu Yi. Some of the offending exporters have been closed down and the State Food and Drug Administration has pledged US$1.2 billion for improving supervision.
Industry has not been passive about the rising concern over Chinese manufactures either. The China Chamber of Commerce warned manufacturers that “some countries [could] take advantage of the issue to raise trade barriers.”
The chamber had no doubt been listening to EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, who said she would be willing to block China’s access to European markets if safety standards didn’t rise. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush has set up an import safety panel, which is due to report back to the White House in September. The next chapter in the product safety debacle could begin there.