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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mattel's toy story one of giant recall

 •  Toys not often cause of kids' lead poisoning

By Bruce Horovitz, Greg Farrell and Sharon Silke Carty
USA Today

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Target employee Dan Swift removes Polly Pocket toys from the shelves at the store in Richmond, Va. Among the Chinese-made Mattel toys involved in yesterday's recall: Batman action figures. Lead paint on some toys and magnets in others pose health risks.

STEVE HALBER | Associated Press

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Join a discussion on the latest toy recall, online at www.HawaiiMoms.com.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Among the recalled toys: Barbie and her dog Tanner


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Mattel by phone:

888-597-6597, for recalled toys with magnets

800-916-4997, for recalled toys with a lead hazard


Mattel, http://service.mattel.com/us/recall.asp

Consumer Product Safety Commission, www.cpsc.gov

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Mattel, one of the most trusted names in toys, suddenly finds its consumer trust in a free fall.

Yesterday, the toy giant recalled 18.2 million Chinese-made toys worldwide 9.5 million in the United States and more recalls may be on tap.

"There is no guarantee that we will not be here again and have more recalls," beleaguered CEO Bob Eckert told reporters in a conference call. "We are testing at a very high level here."

Most of the toys in the latest recall from Barbie to Polly Pocket play sets contain small magnets that children can swallow, and others contain lead paint.

It's beginning to sound a lot like ... trouble. The recalls come within eyeshot of the crucial Christmas season and fewer than two weeks after Mattel's Fisher-Price unit recalled 1.5 million Chinese-made, preschool toys for lead paint.

The back-to-back recalls represent a one-two punch for the largest U.S. toymaker, famous for its Barbie, American Girl and Hot Wheels brands. They threaten Mattel's holiday sales and its sterling reputation with parents, grandparents and, yes, kids.

"I'm going to be wary of what I purchase" from Mattel, says Tami Toon, a working mother from Chico, Calif., who has an 8-year-old and a 2-year-old. From now on, she says, no more toys made in China in her household.

It's that kind of reaction that Mattel executives fear most. About 65 percent of the company's toy products are made in China. Of those, half are made in Mattel-owned plants, and the other half by Chinese vendors.

"In just a matter of weeks, Mattel's gone from a company with the best reputation in the business to one with a gaping wound," says Howard Rubenstein, a New York City publicist who specializes in representing major celebrities and companies in trouble.

"Mattel's in an extreme moment of corporate pain," says Rubenstein. "How do you tell a kid not to put a toy in his mouth?"

Mattel finds itself ensnarled within the eye of a burgeoning, global problem that's far bigger than Mattel or even the toy industry. A rash of recalls is feeding a growing consumer fear of all products particularly seafood, pet-food ingredients and now, toys that carry the stamp "Made in China."

But it's the recent rat-a-tat toy recalls that appear to be leaving the deepest scars in parents' psyches.

"A parent's most basic role is to protect the child," says Robert Butterworth, a child psychologist. "Any parent who hears a toy may make the child sick is a very angry parent."

Kristina Rutkowski of Ann Arbor, Mich., says she is considering boycotting all Chinese-made toys.

For Christmas presents for her two boys, ages 4 and 1, she plans to purchase lots of Legos (made in Denmark, Mexico and the Czech Republic) and toy trains made in Missouri.

Never mind that no injuries have been reported from any of the products involved in yesterday's recalls. That's according to Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The broad scope of the recall, she says, was to "prevent any injuries from occurring."

A Polly Pocket recall in November, however, was prompted by reports of injuries from magnets used in various toys. One child has died, and 19 others have needed surgery since 2003 as a result of swallowing magnets used in toys, the government said.

Mattel has stopped selling the products recalled yesterday, under an agreement negotiated with the safety commission. The company is offering replacement products to consumers.

Meanwhile, retailers have been instructed to remove the products from their shelves.

That's not a big issue at Wal-Mart, the nation's largest toy seller, because the majority of the toys recalled yesterday are "not currently being sold," said spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien.

The toys recalled yesterday were sold from 2002 to 2006, she said, and Wal-Mart is set up to accept the toys for refunds.

The recalls could cost Mattel $25 million in sales this year and $40 million next year, estimated Gerrick Johnson, analyst at BMO Capital Markets. Yesterday, shares fell 57 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $23.

Amid an outpouring of criticism from bloggers, industry analysts and parents of young children, Mattel responded forcefully yesterday. Its CEO led the charge with a letter to consumers in national newspaper ads, TV appearances and a press conference followed by one-on-one media interviews.

"What's important to parents is what we do about it," Eckert said in a telephone interview with USA Today. "I'm a father of four. We're doing everything we can."

Eckert said that includes a three-step program that aims to prevent such an episode from recurring:

  • Testing paint. The company will now require use only of paint from certified suppliers.

  • Testing toys. Every production run of finished toys will be tested to ensure compliance.

  • Inspecting vendors. Mattel plans to tighten controls at vendor facilities and conduct unannounced, random inspections.