Mattel Toy Recalls Our Fault, Company Executive Tells China

Mattel apologized to the Chinese government last week for a round of toy recalls that have tarnished the “Made in China” label. The fact that the apology was made in-person by one of the toy giant’s top executives underscores how important China is to Mattel’s bottom line.

Last Friday, Mattel’s vice president for worldwide operations, Thomas Debrowski, met with China’s product safety head, Li Changjang in an effort to mend fences. “Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologizes personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys.”

Since August 1, the Consumer Products Safety Commission has issued three separate recalls for hazardous, Chinese-made Mattel toys. The recalls involved toys with lead paint, and others that contained dangerous magnets that could cause intestinal injuries if swallowed by a child. The recalls were the most dramatic examples of problematic Chinese imports. This year, faulty tires, toxic toothpaste, poisonous pet foods and other products made in China have been recalled in the US and other countries. The recall scandals have been a huge embarrassment for China, as its fast-growing economy is dependent on its exports.

Some analysts speculate that Mattel’s very public Chinese apology was an effort to head off retribution from the Chinese government for the embarrassment the recalls caused. Manufacturing toys in China has dropped Mattel’s labor costs significantly and has helped to boost the company’s profits. Anger over the Mattel recalls could have led the Chinese government to impose punitive taxes or other regulations on Mattel.

Shortly after the recall scandals, some Chinese officials had said that Mattel’s flawed toy designs and lax quality standards were primarily responsible for the toy recalls. During his apology, Debrowski seemed to agree, saying that a “vast majority of those products that were recalled were the result of design flaws in Mattel’s design, not through a manufacturing flaw in China’s manufacturers.”

For his part, Chinese official Li seemed to relish Debrowski’s apology. “I really hope Mattel can learn from these incidents,” Li said, “and improve its quality control measures.” He also reminded Debrowski that “a large part of your annual profit comes from our factories in China.”

Mattel’s apology could do more than smooth relations between it and China. Some experts believe it could help rehabilitate China’s sagging manufacturing image. Earlier this month, researchers in Canada issued a report that found that design problems had been responsible for 76% of all US toy recalls since 1988. That finding backs up both China’s assertion, and Mattel’s acknowledgment that this summer’s Mattel toy recalls were mostly the fault of the Mattel itself.

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