fisherpricepaint.jpgYou thought lead paint had long been banned from children's toys? So did EngagingChina. But US toymaker Fisher-Price apparently forgot to tell its Chinese suppliers and now must recall 1m Made in China toys because their paint may contain too much lead.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission today announced a voluntary recall of 967,000 pre-school toys, which include popular Nickelodeon and Sesame Street characters such as the Cookie Monster, Elmo and Big Bird.

Mattel, Fisher-Price's parent, said the lead was detected by internal tests and reported to US authorities because it breached regulations allowing up to .06% lead content in children's toys.

This is the largest product recall for Mattel in almost 10 years and it comes amid a tidal wave of concern in the west about the potential dangers of Chinese exports. Much of the debate centres on the impact of these safety scares on trade relations between China and the west – see this Financial Times story for example.

But EngagingChina believes that the quality problem could tarnish the reputation of on many western businesses, which unfairly or not, are suspected of turning a blind eye to Made in China products of dubious security or quality simply to save money.

Its not just the toy industry that is now heavily dependent on Chinese manufacturers. Sourcing managers in a growing range of industrial and consumer goods sectors now heavily source products or parts from China.

Even if they wanted to find a local supplier in the west, the odds are they would not be able to, as the centre of gravity for much of the manufacturing sector has shifted so far east.

Indeed, western suppliers that have not thrown in the towel increasingly sub-contract manufacturing to China, so buying a familiar western brand is no longer a guarantee of provenance. Once the trend was limited to the most price-sensitive products of so-so quality, but in many sectors, Made in China is now the rule rather than the exception.

For example, Hornby the UK-listed toy maker, is hardly a low-cost brand as any dad who has recently sought to relive childhood memories by buying a Hornby model railway for their children will testify.

Yet even Hornby manufactures its iconic and pricey train sets in China and has been doing so for ten years. Hornby argues that its strategy offers the best of both worlds: European product development and engineering skills with “high-quality manufacturing ability” in China.

Hornby has successfully repositioned the Made in China label so that it is not synonymous with toys that fall apart or are a risk to children's health. If Hornby can do it, then I don't see why Mattel and other western toymakers cannot do it as well.

More on Hornby in this EngagingChina story and more on recent safety scares in this story.

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