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Again, China-made goods face recall

Experts point to the country's lack of transparency as cause of its safety problems.

Published June 15, 2007


WASHINGTON - Thursday's huge recall of Thomas & Friends, the train set wildly popular with the preschool set, is just the latest in a string of problems with Chinese-made products. And you've probably never heard of most of them.

Aside from the high-profile recall of China-made pet food that killed hundreds of dogs and cats this spring and the recall of bogus Colgate toothpaste made with toxic Chinese ingredients, federal regulators recently have yanked infant swings, jewelry, cribs, and floats for kayak paddles, all in the name of safety, and all made in China.

In fact, 60 percent of products recalled since October came from China, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And despite growing public and congressional concern with the standards of goods shipped from China, experts say they expect the problem to get worse before it gets better.

"It's not a state known for transparency, and the way that a regulatory system works well - look at the United States - is when a journalist or a member of Congress or a watchdog group shines light on what the state's doing wrong, " said Jeffrey Sosland, a professor of international business at American University who studies the economies of Taiwan and China.

"That transparency forces the state to fix it. In China, you don't have that. ... The economy has grown so quickly that's starting to catch up with them."

China and the multinational companies that make or contract for hair dryers, circuit boards, drugs and toys there are balancing two competing interests. Consumers and regulators expect safe products. But consumers and manufacturers also expect them cheap.

The two aren't necessarily compatible, considering the lack of regulation that contributes to low costs also contributes to safety problems, experts say.

American companies and regulators also complain that China hasn't done enough to curb its production of counterfeit goods.

According to the Associated Press, China was the source of 81 percent of all phony goods seized here in 2006.

"We're seeing a number of different kinds of products ... that are an indication of a very weak inspection system in China, as well as a very cavalier attitude by the people there who make the products, " said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in U.S.-China trade.

"You can create all manner of problems, especially with exports where you're not harming people in China, without consequence."

Thursday's recall involved 1.5-million Thomas & Friends wooden railway pieces because they had been painted with lead-based paint, a neurological hazard to children. The sets are sold by RC2 Corp. of Oak Brook, Ill., and made in China.

Pieter Bottelier, an economist in China studies at Johns Hopkins University, said it's too simplistic just to blame China. He noted that 60 percent of Chinese imports to the United States are made at plants owned or run by U.S. or other foreign companies.

"They are subject to foreign or U.S. quality controls, or they should be, " Bottelier said. "Or there's a problem with those companies."

Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the United States and China have had a formal agreement since 2004 that allows them to exchange technical information about recalls, and American inspectors visit China to try to improve safety and quality.

"Chinese manufacturers need to build safety into products intended for the U.S. marketplace, " Wolfson said.

The commission checks goods arriving at U.S. ports and buys items off store shelves. It specifically targets cigarette lighters, toys, electrical products and fireworks from China.

Lately, Congress has taken a more aggressive stance toward trade with China, with a bipartisan group of senators complaining this week that China manipulates its currency to keep it artificially low, contributing to the U.S. trade deficit. Members also have pushed for tougher inspection standards for drugs shipped from China to the United States.

But while the federal government can seek sanctions against U.S. companies that sell substandard goods, including goods made in China by U.S.-owned companies, it can't do anything about Chinese companies that make goods for the U.S. market.

Nor does China have a tort system that serves as extra incentive to make safe goods.

For significant change to take place, Sosland and Bottelier said, consumer confidence - and sales - of goods made in China must slip enough to push the Western companies that contract with Chinese manufacturers or that sell Chinese-made products to demand better.

"There's such a pressure to make things cheap that people are cutting corners. ..." Sosland said.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

Fast Facts:

What parents should do

Visit or call toll-free 1-866-725-4407 to get information on returning recalled Thomas & Friends items for an exchange.

Manufacturing codes are located on the bottom of the product. Toys labeled "WJ" or "AZ" are not included in the recall.

Most affected toys are red or yellow and were sold after January 2005.

Recent problem products from China

March 16: Menu Foods announces a recall of some of its pet food, citing "its impact on the renal health of the pets consuming the products."

April 3: FDA bans wheat gluten imports from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. (Wangdian, China), which was identified as the source of the melamine-contaminated wheat gluten used in pet food. Melamine was causing kidney failure in the animals.

April 15: Melamine is found in another pet food ingredient from China - rice protein concentrate - imported by San Francisco-based Wilbur-Ellis Co. from Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co.

May 6: The New York Times reports that at least 100 people have died in Panama after ingesting cough syrup that contained the antifreeze component diethylene glycol. The diethylene glycol was exported from China labeled as "glycerin, " a harmless compound.

May 22: A Chinese toothpaste company is identified as the source of toothpaste exported to Panama that contained diethylene glycol.

June 1: The FDA says that Chinese-made toothpaste containing diethylene glycol has been found in the United States.

[Last modified June 15, 2007, 10:17:19]

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