Despite the recent media attention paid to the alleged dangers associated with Chinese made toys—and the backlash as Chinese companies consider suing American partners that initially blamed them for the problems—they pose no more risk than toys made elsewhere. This is the conclusion of two recent studies published by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and written by Paul W. Beamish, of the University of Western Ontario and a Senior Fellow of the Foundation, Hari Bapuji and Andre Laplume, both of the University of Manitoba. Their research found that while toy recalls have increased steadily since 1988, most recalls are the result of toy design defects, not manufacturing problems. And recalls of Chinese-made toys are no more frequent than of toys made elsewhere. They only seem more common because China produces by far the most toys.
The dominance of Chinese manufacturers in the toy industry is stark. Their products represent 60% of the US$71-billion global toy industry and 86% of the US$17-billion worth of toys imported by the United States last year ’ more than double their market share in 1992. The impact of Chinese-made toys on the North American market is especially noticeable because the domestic toy industry has shrunk dramatically. In the 12 years to 2005, employment in the US toy industry shrank from 42,300 to just 17,400.
Recalls involving Chinese products have increased over the years, hovering at about half of all toy recalls throughout the 1990s but trending upward after 2002. In August and September of this year, Mattel recalled over 20 million of its Chinese-made toys.
This week Australia banned a children’s game when it was revealed that parts of the game, manufactured in China, contained chemicals that transformed into a powerful drug when swallowed. The number of China-related toy recalls this year has increased dramatically over previous years: of the 40 US toy recalls issued by August, 38, or 95%, involved Chinese-made products. At first glance, it appears there is a growing ‘China problem.’ And poll after poll shows increasing consumer apprehension toward Chinese made products.
Earlier research by Bapuji and Beamish showed that most toy recalls are the result of design flaws attributable to the toy companies that create the products, rather than to overseas manufacturers. Of the 550 US toy recalls since 1988, 420 ’ more than three quarters ’ involved design flaws such as sharp edges, small parts that could be swallowed, and long strings that posed strangulation hazards. Only a tenth of recalls involved manufacturing flaws such as poor craftsmanship or toxic paint. (It was not possible to determine the source of the flaws in the remaining recalls.) Although the proportion of China’s manufacturing-related recalls has increased in the past two years, design-related flaws remain responsible for the majority of toy injuries and deaths.
Comparing recalls of Chinese-made toys to those of other US toy imports offers a fuller picture. Recalls regardless of origin are increasing faster than increases in US toy consumption. The number of China-related toy recalls is also growing, but the latest study by Beamish, Bapuji and Laplume, shows this increase is not out of proportion with the increases in recalls from other countries. China’s large and growing share of all US toy imports simply means recalls of its products are more apparent.
Toy imports from other countries are proportionately recalled as often as or more often than their Chinese counterparts, and, unlike China, manufacturing problems are more likely to be the cause of these recalls. In 2004, four firms recalled 150 million pieces of toy jewelry made in India because they contained excessive amounts of lead. In 2002, approximately 75,000 South Korean-made pedal-cars, retailing at between US$100 and US$300, were recalled because of their high lead content. These recalls are very substantial given that these countries export three or four orders of magnitude fewer toys to the US than does China. In other words, at worst, Ch