Chinese products in US: demand vs backlash

By Tony Czuczka, DPA
Washington : Mattel Inc’s huge toy recall is just the latest trouble for Chinese products in the US, where cost-conscious consumers have fuelled China’s rise as an economic power.
Not only were parents asked to return iconic toy figures such as Barbie and Batman, but the recall follows scares this year over tainted Chinese exports of pet food, seafood and toothpaste.

As China’s share of US imports has risen, Americans have come to realize how much of their everyday lives depend on products and ingredients shipped in from the world’s fastest-growing economy.

Support TwoCircles

Fears of a backlash that could hurt both economies have spurred US-Chinese talks on product safety and moves by Beijing to strengthen regulations and enforcement.

Pressure from the European Union is also rising, and companies that buy in China have bottom-line reasons for concern. Mattel issued a global recall Tuesday for more than 18 million toy sets because tiny magnets could fall off and be swallowed by children, risking potentially deadly intestinal injuries.

The world’s largest toymaker also recalled 250,000 toy jeeps sold as tie-ins to the cartoon film Cars, because of lead in the paint.

“This is totally unacceptable, and it needs to stop,” said Nancy Nord, acting head of the US government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission, which banned lead-based paint in the US in 1978.

With China now supplying 80 percent of the world’s toys, what winds up in kids’ hands – or mouths – is of special concern to Western consumers.

Yet Americans’ appetite for Chinese goods seems unbroken. While the overall US trade deficit shrank in June, China’s surplus in goods exports to the US grew, the government said.

Last year, the US trade deficit with China, the world’s biggest producer of consumer goods, reached a record $233 billion.

Meanwhile, a record 467 products were recalled in the US in 2006. Recalls of Made-in-China items doubled in the last five years, accounting for 60 percent of the total and all but one of the toy recalls this year.

From bicycle wheel forks that break and fiery laptop batteries to lead paint on much-loved Thomas the Tank Engine wooden toy trains, Chinese factories have endured negative publicity for months.

But US consumer-protection groups say lax Chinese standards are only part of the problem. Underfunded, understaffed US regulatory agencies share the blame, they say.

“We are overexposed, underregulated and very late to waking up and getting government and industry to do a better job protecting us,” said Janet Domenitz of Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group.

“Maybe people will start to get aware in a good way of the importance of the safety of our products.”

Industry insiders are evidently aware of the pitfalls. The Toy Industry Association, which represents most US toy companies, has held product-safety meetings with Chinese manufacturers since 1996.

US and Chinese government officials plan to meet Sep 11 for what is being billed as the second summit on consumer product safety. Toys, electrical products, fireworks and lighters are singled out for discussion.

For Mattel, it was the second recall of Chinese-made toys in two weeks. The first involved about 1 million items of its Fisher-Price brand, including some Sesame Street characters.

“I’m deeply apologetic to everyone affected,” chief executive Bob Eckert said.