The winter holiday season is typically a gold rush for toy manufacturers, but this year has been different. Concerns over lead levels have prompted Mattel, the world's largest toy brand, to recall more than 21 million China-made toys this year. Most recently, the toy Aqua Dots have been yanked off shelves because they contain cheap industrial solvents that metabolize into GHB, better known as the "date rape drug."
While the media spotlight on toy safety continues to raise fears among holiday shoppers, in fact only 0.9 percent of 3 billion toys sold in the United States each year have been recalled, wrote Alan G. Hassenfeld, former Chairman and CEO of Hasbro, in a November 12 column for Forbes, and the majority of recalls were for design flaws, not manufacturing problems.
"There have been a number of product recalls, for a variety of reasons, and because of them, both the U.S. toy industry and our Chinese suppliers have taken it on the chin. Some of this is deserved, but a lot is not. As inevitably happens with issues involving our children and their health and safety, a lot of mistaken information has been passed around and blown up beyond all recognition," Hassenfeld wrote.
The perceptions of poor-quality imports, even if concerns are overblown, have already cost the industry millions. An online poll conducted by market research firm Harris Interactive indicated that one third of Americans said they would cut back on toy purchases this year, and that 45 percent would avoid toys manufactured in China, according to MarketWatch.
As many as 80 percent of toys are currently made in China, according to the Toy Industry Association. The group recently launched a consumer website and call center to educate American shoppers on safety issues with independent toy testing research and third-party experts. The group is also working with the Senate Commerce Committee to draft the Consumer Product Safety Commission Reform Act of 2007. The act introduces mandatory tracking labels for toys, and bans even the smallest traces of lead.
The concerns over toy safety prompted Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to call for the resignation of Nancy Nord, Chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The commission has also come under criticism for being understaffed, with only 15 port inspectors.
However, despite official action and media concerns, many shoppers are continuing with their plans to buy toys, whether they are made in China or not. Beijing Review conducted an informal poll of busy holiday shoppers outside the famed Toys "R" Us megastore in Times Square, New York City, to see how concerned they really were over China-made toys.
(Reporting from New York)
"I don't think there is much you can do. Everything is made in China. It's scary. I try to buy made-in-the-USA products but I can't all the time. Some popular toys are made in China."
--Alicia Briggs, Jackson, Miss.
"I've seen [media coverage on product safety]. It doesn't really concern me. I don't miss the recalled toys; I don't even know what they were. I think you just have to be smart about what you buy for your kids."
--Ron Brisker, Queens, N.Y.
"It does concern me, but I have to trust what is on the shelves is safe. China doesn't have the same standards for safety, but I can't check everything. If the store sells it, then it should be safe. I don't think that I'll change what I buy, I still look for a cheap price."
--Anna Konig, Brooklyn, N.Y.
"On one level I'm concerned, because I have heard stories about dangerous lead in toys and other safety problems, but it doesn't concern me so much that I will change what I'm planning to buy. Just because it's made in China, doesn't mean it's bad. But I think we should have stricter rules on imports."
--Allen Rivera, Sacramento, Calif.