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The Toy Story
Special> The Toy Story
UPDATED: December 8, 2007 NO.50 DEC.13, 2007
Crossing the Great Divide
The safety and quality standards divide is the most severe challenge facing China's toy industry

China was blamed a spate of toy recalls this year. Overseas customers and press pointed the finger at China's toy makers who had manufactured toys according to their contracts. It was later found that most of the toy problems came from design faults of brand holders, not from Chinese manufacturers.

To Wei Chuangzhong, Vice Minister of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), the cavalcade of negative press coverage overseas has been unfair and bad for China's manufacturers.

Nine out of 10 exported toys are of reliable quality, said Wei on many occasions, and that the vast majority of toy recalls this year were attributed to design flaws rather than manufacturing errors in China.

Besides these issues, differences in quality and safety standards are a major reason why a considerable proportion of exported toys have come under scrutiny, said Wei.

Closing the gap

U.S. product safety officials recalled 4.2 million China-made Aqua Dots sets on November 8, because the beads contained a chemical that caused five children in the United States and Australia to fall ill after swallowing them.

The toys-products of Australia-based Moose Enterprises-were sold as Aqua Dots in the United States and Bindeez in Australia. Moose Enterprises agent, Hong Kong-based Duo Yuan Plastic Production Co., outsourced the manufacturing of the toys to the Wangqi Product Factory in Shenzhen.

After risk evaluation of the product, the Chinese quality control watchdog, the AQSIQ, suspended the exports of the toys and the toy maker's export license. Then, it organized institutions and experts to detect, analyze and evaluate the harm the chemical can cause.

The statement said that AQSIQ had also asked the U.S. side for help to provide the medical reports of the victims.

However, the AQSIQ statement said Wangqi had submitted the production formulas and samples to the distributor Duo Yuan before mass production and received no objection. Moose Enterprises provided the bead samples. The investigations also showed that the packaging of the toys carried warnings including "swallowing can cause danger" and "not suitable for children under 3," which met China's standards for toy manufacturing.

The coating of the beads contained an adhesive solvent that, once metabolized, converts into the toxic "date rape" drug GHB, or gamma-hydroxyl butyrate. If ingested, it can cause seizures, coma or death, the AQSIQ said.

Yet, the batch of bead toys got the green light for production and exportation because there are no international toy safety standards that set limits to the amount of "1,4 butanediol," said the AQSIQ.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the toys were supposed to be made with the nontoxic 1,5-pentanediol, a chemical commonly used in computer printer ink. However, this costs three or four times as much as the toxic alternative found in the recalled toys.

By the end of November, U.S. importers had recalled 21 million China-made toys.

These recalls were attributed to three reasons, said Wei. The first was with manufacturers who used excessive levels of lead paint and the second was on the importers who provided China's toy makers with flawed designs. For example, 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 design flaws.

About 70 percent of toy makers in China are engaged in toy production outsourced to China and making toys conforming to the samples and designs overseas toy designers or importers provided.

The third reason is the difference between two sets of production quality and safety standards in China and the importing countries. For example, many toys the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found with excessive levels of lead paint met the requirements of Chinese, European and ISO standards and were safe for children around the world.

This standards divide, according to Wei, is the most severe challenge facing China's toy making industry.

China requires that the lead dissolvable from paint used on toys must be kept under 90 mg per kg (National Compulsory Technical Code for Toys Safety), which is in line with the international standard (ISO 8124-3) and the European standard (EN 71-3). But the United States adds an extra standard to limit the lead content to 600 mg per kg. Many toys failed to meet the U.S. requirements on the total lead content per kg.

There are other differences, for example, the U.S. standard requires that toys intended for children under 48 months should not have any acute angles, but in China this limit is set for babies below 36 months.

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