Scott Gillespie: When toys turn bad

  • Article by: SCOTT GILLESPIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2007 - 3:13 PM

A number of large and high-profile toy recalls this year has consumers deeply concerned about product safety. In Washington, lawmakers have targeted the weakened Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates more than 15,000 types of products with only 400 employees -- fewer than half the agency's startup staffing in 1973. With that troubling backdrop, the Star Tribune asked Toys 'R' Us Chairman Gerald Storch to discuss what can be done to ensure product safety in the toy industry. Storch, who joined New Jersey-based Toys 'R' Us in 2006, is a familar name in Minnesota business. He served in a number of executive roles at Target Corp. over 12 years, most recently as vice chairman. The following Q&A was adapted from an interview last week.

Q This has been the year of the recall for the toy industry, and some surveys show that consumers are increasingly worried about product safety. How serious is the problem?

A At Toys 'R' Us, we believe that we know and understand that the recalls have left [parents] feeling uneasy about toys. But we believe that everything that's happened will be good for the consumer...First, the testing and evaluation of products has been significantly increased, and many of these recalls are the result of increased testing and scrutiny. And that's good.

Secondly, the focus on safety legislatively will result in a strengthened CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) and in new laws, which will make toys even safer in the future. Thirdly, private enterprise is clearly more focused on every detail of safety now after what's occurred this year. So toy manufacturers will be much more aggressive in evaluating their products. Finally, as a toy retailer we feel that we are the advocate for [parents] in this situation, and we have delivered the message to the manufacturers, in no uncertain terms, that we will not tolerate products that do not meet our safety standards.

Q You mentioned the CPSC, which has faced growing criticism from consumer groups, lawmakers and industry executives. Is the agency broken, and if so what can be done to make it more effective?

A The CPCS is understaffed and underbudgeted, but it's not broken, and therefore the most important improvement for the safety of all consumer products, not just toys, will be to increase the budget for the CPSC so that they can hire more people to do a more aggressive job of enforcing safety regulations across all consumer sectors.

Q Even with 21st-century technology, the recall system has been called into question, with products sometimes staying on store shelves long after they have been identified by manufacturers. How can the recall system itself be improved?

A The proposal by Sen. [Amy] Klobuchar [D-Minn.] to require batch stamping, or date stamping, of toys would enable the immediate identification of problem products. So that's one of the most important changes in the proposed legislation.

In many cases the toys that have been recalled are not even sold anymore. ... For example, many of the Matell products that were recalled were not current products. But yet it's very difficult for [parents] to know which of the products [they have that] are covered by the recall.

... Also, quite frequently the recalls are not design-related but contaminant-related. For example, the recalls for lead paint. Often the product has been made properly for a long period of time, and then the inferior paint has been substituted. And if you knew when the toy was manufactured, it would be much easier to target only those toys that were affected by the contamination.

There's no doubt that the primary responsibility and accountability must lie with the toy manufacturers. Manufacturers, after all, are the ones who are producing the products. That's true in all consumer goods where the manufacturer has the responsibility and accountability. As an advocate for [parents], we have [demanded] that the manufacturers toughen up their own safety inspections and testing. We have, in the last few months, issued revised and even more strict requirements to the manufacturers about how much testing they must do to meet our requirements. And in many cases, our requirements are much tougher than those under existing law or under the imposed regulations.

Q Earlier this month, Chinese-made toys called Aqua Dots were recalled after they were found to contain a chemical that takes on the characteristics of the so-called "date rape" drug when ingested. How could that happen?

A The Aqua Dots case is still under investigation by multiple governments and businesses. So, as you might imagine, all the facts are not out yet. ... The product was on the market for several years in various forms and under different names. The company that promoted the product and is viewed as the originator of the product is a company based in Australia.

The product was tested ... and found to be safe multiple times. At some point, more recently in a Chinese factory, someone appears to have substituted one chemical for another. The previous chemical was totally safe, as we understand it. The new chemical was not, and the problem was caught ... when a child in Australia became sick from the product and the product was then recalled in Australia. We operate in 35 countries. We heard about what happened in Australia, so we immediately pulled the product from our shelves in the U.S. and demanded to know from the U.S. importer what was going on.

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