Playing It Safe (Part 2) – Product Safety Regulations Have Changed How We Make and Buy Children’s Products

The TA Creations lunch box controversy in California was merely a prelude to a barrage of product safety news that would change the way companies source – and consumers buy – children’s products.  Three years later, on June 18, 2007, the New York Times reported that all of the 24 toys recalled by the Consumer Products Safety Commission since the beginning of that year had been manufactured in China, including 1.5 million Thomas and Friends trains and rail components.[i]  Two months later, Mattel recalled 1 million toys – all manufactured in China – due to excessive lead levels.  The recall covered 83 products, including Sesame Street and Nickelodeon characters.  These high profile recalls created much controversy in consumer product safety circles and grabbed the attention of the media, federal and state legislators, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

Largely as a result of that uproar, roughly one year later on August 14, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the new Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).  Between 2002 and 2007, the number of recalls of products made in China had doubled, and the law was a direct response to those recalls, particularly those related to the above-mentioned children’s products tainted with lead paint.  The new law banned all products with a lead content of more than 600 parts per million by February 2009, and drastically reduced the allowable level of lead content in any children’s product to 100 parts per million by February 2011.  The law also banned the manufacture, distribution and sale of any child care product that contained concentrations of more than 0.1 percent of phthalates, a compound that previously had been used in a number of plastic products, including some drinking containers.

Finally, the new law set up strict testing requirements to ensure compliance, including a paper trail in the form of a General Conformity Certificate (GCC) that would compel U.S. distributors of products imported from China to document and have available the ultimate manufacturing source.  Thus, importers are now required to have on file a record of an imported product’s “DNA,” including the date and place where the product was manufactured, and date and place where the product was tested.

In spite of the increasingly stiffer U.S. product safety regulations, one need only follow the news to know that many China manufacturers still possess little understanding of the importance of product safety in the U.S. market.  And it is not as though China is dumping unsafe, inferior product only on unsuspecting consumers here in the States.  Rather, it is a pattern of behavior which proves that lax safety standards are both tolerated and even covered up at some of the highest corporate levels.

During the height of the 2008 U.S. recalls of lead tainted toys manufactured in China, executives at the Sanlu Group, China’s largest producer of powdered milk, had discovered that some of their products were laced with melamine, a chemical used to produce plastic and fertilizer.  It was apparently added to the milk powder to boost the measurable protein content of the product.  However, with the Beijing Olympics due to begin in a matter of days, the company opted to bury the news for five weeks to prevent an embarrassing revelation during the Games, and continued to sell the product for consumption by infants.[ii]  Six babies died from kidney stones and other kidney damage, and over 800 were hospitalized.  Two people were eventually executed, another given a suspended death sentence, and three received a sentence of life imprisonment.  So one would think this would be the end of the possibility of finding melamine in powdered milk in China.

Yet, in late 2010 and early 2011, packets of melamine-tainted powdered milk were again found on store shelves in China.  Incredibly, some of the product seized during the 2008 scandal had been reused and put back on retail shelves three years later.[iii]  In July 2012, state media outlets announced that more contaminated formula was discovered in Guangzhou, China.  Tests confirmed that the formula contained excessive amounts of the carcinogen aflatoxin. This was only one month after baby formula with dangerous levels of mercury had been discovered.[iv]

In his book The End of Cheap China, Shaun Rein (no “China basher” by any means) recounts that after the tainted milk scandal re-surfaced in 2011, the Chinese government shut down 50% of the dairies because officials were still finding traces of melamine in dairy products.  The government arrested 2,000 and closed 4,900 businesses, yet Rein comments that this “is likely a small drop in the bucket because the problems are so immense.”[v]

Meanwhile, Raelynn Hughes at Mommy Necklaces continues to fight the battle against imports every day.  Cheap knock-offs from overseas are a constant threat, but her customers trust her and the safety of her products.  Occasionally, mothers of young children who buy her necklaces will send her some of their old jewelry, and subsequent testing will reveal lead levels far above the legal limit.

“Moms stop wearing jewelry because they are fearful it will break,” Hughes relates.  “But what most Moms don’t realize is that this is not the only concern.  Most everyday jewelry is loaded with toxic levels of metals.  We test it regularly and the results are often scary.  It’s ironic that we think about what we feed our kids, what chemicals are in the diapers, environmental toxins in water; but a piece of jewelry that lays on our skin everyday and ends up in our child’s hand – we just don’t think about it.”

The fact that Hughes has thought about it, and solved the problem, has turned Mommy Necklaces into a global brand.  She now has customers across the U.S., in New Zealand and Australia (two markets flooded with Asian imports), and over 18,000 Facebook fans.

Michael McKeldon Woody is host of the upcoming television program, and author of the upcoming book “American Dragon,” both of which profile U.S manufacturers successfully competing with overseas companies.  He can be reached at mmw@americandragon.us and on Facebook at American Dragon – Michael McKeldon Woody.  

[i] Lipton, Eric B., and Barboza, David.  “As More Toys Are Recalled, Trail Ends in China,” New York Times, June 19, 2007

[ii] Leiber, Nick, and Rocks, David, “Small U.S. Manufacturers Give Up on ‘Made in China,’” Bloomberg Businessweek, June 26, 2012.

[iii] Melamine – China Tainted Baby Formula Scandal, New York Times, March 4, 2011.

[iv] Mark McDonald, Carcinogen Found In Chinese Baby Formula, International Herald Tribune, July 23, 2012.

[v] Rein, Shaun, The End of Cheap China, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012, page 98.

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