Chinese toy recalls show need for stringent quality control
Recall puts focus on need for stringent quality control for imports.
This week's recall of millions of toys from China isn't just kids' stuff. It is focusing fresh attention on whether corporations are doing enough to ensure product safety in an era of outsourced and globalized manufacturing.Skip to next paragraph
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Mattel is hardly a fly-by-night operation. It's the largest US toymaker and had measures in place for tracking and enforcing quality control. Unlike many toymakers, it actually owns and runs some of its own factories in China.
Yet as of Tuesday, 18 million Mattel toys from China are on recall, and many consumers are wondering, if it can happen on this scale with this company, who will it happen with next?
As concerns about safety have mounted this year, US-based toymakers have already been in damage-control mode. They have launched a range of preventive and defensive measures: redesigning products, relabeling, adding new layers of inspection. Despite all that, the recall problems could spell slower toy sales this holiday season.
China, too, faces a big public-relations challenge, since this week's events simply add to a tide of bad news about product safety.
But the low-cost economics of overseas production remain compelling for corporations. The question isn't whether to have a far-flung supply chain, but how to manage it.
"These supply chains are becoming much more sophisticated …. It's going to require new approaches" for quality control, says Eric Johnson, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "The issue for multinationals operating there now is, how do you manage the supplier's supplier?"
The fact that Mattel ran into trouble, he says, hints at the difficulties facing any industry.
"I view them as one of the best" in the toy category, says Mr. Johnson. "They were in China long before China was cool in terms of low-cost sourcing," and run a number of their own facilities there.
Increasingly, it's not just product assembly that occurs in developing nations such as China, but the production of materials such as paint as well.
One aspect of Tuesday's recall involved a Mattel partner, which changed paint vendors and received pigment containing lead.
"While the painting subcontractor, HLD, was required to utilize paint supplied directly from [the company specified by Mattel], it instead violated Mattel's standards and utilized paint from a non-authorized, third-party supplier," Mattel said in its recall statement.
The problem underscores the layers of control – and shared responsibilities – involved in global production. Mattel had many standards, but "they didn't have a process in place to make sure that an approved supplier was being used," says David Hennessey, a marketing expert at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.
In addition to lead paint, much of Tuesday's recall by Mattel was of toys that contain tiny magnets that can be ingested by children.
In all, the recalls affect a range of popular toys, from Polly Pocket and Doggie Daycare to the Sarge vehicle from the movie "Cars."
The magnet recall involves toys made from 2002 through early this year, when the health risks of such magnets became clear.
"No system is perfect," Mattel chief executive Robert Eckert said in a TV interview, describing the multiple inspections in place for each batch of toys.
But the toy debacle has amplified concerns that Chinese suppliers pose particular risks when it comes to product safety. This year, toys have shared headline space with toothpaste, pet food, and tires regarding such concerns.