Feet to the fire

August 05, 2007

Safety has a cost, and it's a cost worth paying. If American companies are going to continue to sell Chinese goods, they must do far more to ensure the safety of those goods. That could mean investing in the Chinese factories where products are made, or instituting strict guidelines with on-site inspections, paid for by the U.S. distributor.

Late last week, even as Fisher-Price toys were being pulled off shelves in Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Canada and the United States, American and Chinese government officials announced that they had agreed to cooperate on food and product safety. That's good - necessary, in fact. But realistically, cheating will continue unless American importers are themselves held to account for the goods they sell.

The Fisher-Price scandal is an instructive event. More than a million toys worldwide were recalled last week because of lead paint. The lead contamination was not detected by an inspection in this country; the company was tipped off by a European distributor. It then did the responsible thing - but 300,000 toys had already been sold by the time the recall was announced.

Days after the lead paint was discovered, Mattel Inc., which owns Fisher-Price, had not publicly identified the company or factory where the toys had been made. Disconcertingly, it is possible that that factory manufactures toys for other labels as well. What about those toys? And what about toys bought last year, or the year before?

Parents, says Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, should buy a lead-test kit, available at any home supply store, if they are suspicious of any painted toy. A positive result should be reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission or local health department.

This gets at another aspect of the problem. A big corporation such as Mattel, or Wal-Mart, for instance, has the means and clout to insist on safety standards - and should do so more energetically. But there are thousands of pass-through distributors in this country who do little more than import products and sell them to second-tier retailers at a slight mark-up. One shipment from a particular factory might be fine, and the next contaminated. Holding these small importers responsible could drive them out of business. That may be the price to pay for safety - unless they can institute regular and continuing inspections.

The buck stops here. U.S. companies that benefit from globalization will have to realize that.

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