Should Consumers Trust Toy Retailers Again? (San Jose Mercury Times)

Mike Antonucci, San Jose Mercury Times

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The impact of last year's blazing headlines about dangerous
toys remains powerful. 

But in the absence of immediate new national safety
guarantees, it's at least temporarily falling to retailers to provide consumers
with some protection.

After a series of 2007 recalls for toys and other children's products
with excessive lead or other dangers, the House of Representatives weighed in
with a product safety bill that passed overwhelmingly in late December. A
stronger and more politically controversial bill – with more aggressive
enforcement provisions – passed the Senate late Thursday. The House and Senate
next have to settle on mutually acceptable legislation.

Without waiting for new laws, retail giants Toys R Us and Wal-Mart are
trumpeting new, self-imposed rules that are designed to at least partially
protect their businesses – and by extension the consumer – from the
manufacturer and supplier problems at the root of the recall mess.

Consumer advocates contend that Toys R Us and Wal-Mart are driven mostly by
self-interest and that their new rules are not as extensive as possible.
They also believe it would be a mistake to think retailers and manufacturers
will address all of the safety problems without additional public pressure or
regulation.

But those same consumer advocates also acknowledge that the new Toys R Us
and Wal-Mart procedures are significant. Both companies say they're requiring
more product safety testing by independent laboratories, and more stringent
standards for permissible levels of lead in some products.

Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, describes the
Toys R Us and Wal-Mart initiatives as "a good start" that's likely to
force many manufacturers and suppliers to be more scrupulous about the quality
of their merchandise. Toys R Us and Wal-Mart said major toy producers, including
Mattel and Hasbro, are supporting the new rules. Mattel did not respond to an
e-mail request for comment; Hasbro did not respond to a phone request.

Green also said legal pressure from his and other organizations, combined
with intense media scrutiny, has changed the business climate.

"I think what we see now is that things that seemed normal six months
or a year ago now are seen as unethical business practices," Green said.

David Arkush, director of the Congress Watch division for the Public Citizen
consumer advocacy group, contrasted the speed of action being taken by Toys R
Us and Wal-Mart with that of government regulators.

"It's a sad state of affairs when they're moving far more quickly than
the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission," Arkush said.

The performance of the CPSC – whose funding, responsibilities and authority
are part of the debate in the Senate – has been sharply criticized by a variety
of politicians and observers.

Instead of responding directly to Arkush, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said,
"The agency has been a longtime advocate of companies moving away from the
use of lead in children's products. We have had the law (banning lead) with us
in the area of paint on the surface of toys.

"But in other children's product areas," continued Wolfson,
"we have called for companies to look to the use of alternative metals,
and we are an agency that in recent years has been very concerned about
dangerous lead in children's jewelry and (we) advocate that parents use
caution."

Emily Rusch, consumer advocate for the California Public Interest Research
Group (CalPIRG) said the Toys R Us and Wal-Mart insistence on more independent
testing is a positive step.

"More independent testing is something that's clearly and sorely
needed," Rusch said. "We had more than 25 million toys that were
recalled worldwide in 2007. We need industry to step up, and it's in their best
interest to do that."

One key CalPIRG concern: Even the more stringent lead standards being required
by Toys R Us and Wal-Mart are higher than the trace amount of lead that
organizations including the American
Academy of Pediatrics
have recommended as the ideal standard.

"Our position is that there's no reason to settle for adding lead to
toys in any situation," Rusch said.

 

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