Parents can be forgiven for being a little xenophobic these days.
Millions of toys all made in China have been recalled in recent weeks because they have unsafe levels of lead paint, a potent brain poison that can lower IQ, cause learning disabilities and even, some studies suggest, trigger violent behavior. Further, the federal agency responsible for identifying suspect toys and alerting the public, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has admitted it has just one employee testing toys, and independent labs have repeatedly outpaced the agency by identifying toxic toys before it does. That leaves consumers little confidence that all toys still on the shelves are safe.
The record number of recalls more in October alone than in any previous calendar year has prompted toy retailers to prepare information that you, the customer, can use to avoid not only recalled products, but in some cases Chinese-made toys altogether (no small challenge, considering 80% of the world's toys are made there).
Yes, the information is there, but good luck finding it. While toy safety information is suddenly a component of every toy retailers Website, and available, say, at the customer service desk or on a bulletin board in the store, its rarely front and center.
The largest dedicated toy retailer in the U.S., Toys R Us, for instance, now makes available a country-of-origin list for all toys in its 842 U.S. stores. According to spokesman Bob Friedland, the list is offered on request to any customer so he or she can find or avoid toys made in any particular country. Anyone can ask for the list, but Toys R Us doesn't advertise that it's available.
All of our stores have a list of toys broken down by which countries theyre manufactured in, Friedland said. Our managers can identify these toys and...will show them the toys.
The Toys R Us list that The Daily Green has seen had several hundred items, and the words Not Made In China List scrawled across the top, and indicated by a file name printed at the bottom.
KB Toys, the largest mall-based toy retailer, has posted recall information at its registers and has trained its associates to deal with customer questions, but hasn't published information about where toys are manufactured or assembled, spokesman Geoffrey Webb said.
"There are people who are very, very concerned about their children's safety and they want to know if a particular toy has passed testing," Webb said. "We can tell them that we have on file [independent safety] certification for every toy sold in the store." (He also pointed out that the fraction of toys found to be unsafe is minuscule compared to the fraction of safe toys that remain on the shelves.)
Country-of-origin information isnt available on any of the best-known toy or general retailers' Websites that The Daily Green reviewed.
That could reflect customer interest, or disinterest. As Friedland puts it, What weve found is our customers really dont shop by country of origin.... Theyre looking for brands and the toys that their kids want.
Not surprisingly, it's very easy to find information about "Jumbo Lounging Elmo" and free holiday shipping offers even, in one case, current events (The Toys R Us Website had information about how the California wildfires might affect shipments.)
The Websites including K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Target, JCPenney, Sears and Amazon.com have much in common: They each have information about recalls, sometimes wrapped in a new "micro-site" dedicated to recall and other safety information. And none of it is particularly easy to find.
Typically, the information is available only via a tiny link far down on the homepage, or in some cases only apparently accessible via a site map or site search. Neither etoys.com nor kbtoys.com has any apparent safety or recall information linked from the homepage, but both have safety sections that include recall information at /safety. (KB Toys licensed its name to etoys.com, which operates its online toy retail business via kbtoys.com, but independent of the KB Toys familiar to mall shoppers, Webb said.)
It's not that companies have done nothing; customer notification is only one component. KB Toys beefed up its independent testing program in August, and requires perennial best sellers to submit to repeated testing to ensure that they meet federal safety standards, for instance. And Toys R Us supports reforming the CPSC recall process to include more frequent testing, has beefed up its own testing process, and employs a "no quibble" policy so that its stores accept all recalled toys regardless of where customers purchased them.
But parents who want to find information about which products are made in China, or how companies ensure those products are safe, have to take initiative to get the information.
A notable exception is Right Start, which sells early childhood products and has about 30 locations in 12 states.
When the recall barrage started, Right Start asked each of its vendors for information about how they ensure the safety of toys made in China, and it published that information, specific to each vendor, on its Website. (It also has information about phthalate-free toys, a hot topic since California will soon ban the use of the chemical in toys intended for children under age 3.)
"It's not a huge percentage, but those who are interested are extremely interested," said Hope Neiman, senior vice president of marketing for Right Start. "Because people are looking to us for information, we felt it was incumbent on us to presuppose the questions that would be asked by our customers and show that we really take our mission seriously to help them make the best choices for their family."Read the Safe Toy Watch Special Report.
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