BEIJING – The head of a Chinese manufacturer whose lead-tainted Sesame Street toys were the center of a massive U.S. recall has killed himself, a state-run newspaper said Monday.
Cheung Shu-hung, who co-owned Lee Der Industrial Co., committed suicide at a warehouse over the weekend, apparently by hanging himself, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported.
"When I rushed there around 5 p.m., police had already sealed off the area," the newspaper quoted a manager surnamed Liu as saying. "I saw that our boss had two deep marks in his neck."
Though the report did not give a reason for Cheung's apparent suicide — and the company declined to discuss the matter — Lee Der was under pressure in a global controversy over the safety of Chinese made products.
This month, Mattel Inc., one of the largest U.S. toy companies, was forced to recall 967,000 plastic preschool toys made by Lee Der because they were decorated with paint found to have excessive amounts of lead. The toys, sold in the U.S. under the Fisher-Price brand, included likenesses of Big Bird and Elmo, as well as the Dora and Diego characters.
Days later, Chinese officials temporarily banned Lee Der from exporting products. The Southern Metropolis Daily, citing unidentified Lee Der workers, said the recall cost the company US$30 million.
The recall was among the largest in recent months involving Chinese products, which have come under scrutiny worldwide for containing potentially dangerous high levels of chemicals and toxins.
Chinese officials, anxious to protect an export industry crucial to China's booming economy, have aggressively tried to shore up international consumer confidence by cracking down on makers of shoddy goods, crafting new regulations and stepping up inspections.
In one of the more bizarre cases, a court in Beijing on Sunday sentenced a reporter to one year in jail after he pleaded guilty to faking a television report that showed migrant workers making meat buns stuffed with cardboard for sale.
The report, concocted by freelance reporter Zi Beijia, fanned fears in China and abroad about China's poor food safety record. The report appeared on national television and was widely seen on YouTube.com.
In the Lee Der suicide, an official who answered the telephone at the company's factory in the southern city of Foshan on Monday said he had not heard of the news. A man at Lee Der's main office in Hong Kong said the company was not accepting interviews and hung up. Telephones at Foshan's police headquarters rang unanswered.
Cheung was a co-owner of Lee Der, according to a registry of Hong Kong companies. The other owner, Chiu Kwei-tsun, did not return telephone messages left for him.
In its report, the Southern Metropolis Daily said Cheung, a Hong Kong resident in his 50s, treated his 5,000-odd employees well and always paid them on time. The morning of his suicide, he greeted workers and chatted with some of them, the report said.
After the recall, Lee Der maintained that its paint supplier, Cheung's best friend, supplied the lead-tainted paint used in the toys, the Southern Metropolis Daily said.
"The boss and the company were harmed by the paint supplier, the closest friend of our boss," Liu, the manager, was quoted as saying.
In announcing the temporary export ban against Lee Der, a government quality inspection agency also slapped a similar prohibition on Hansheng Wood Products Factory and said police were investigating both companies' use of "fake plastic pigment." Such pigments are a type of industrial latex used to make surfaces smoother and shinier.
Hansheng made wooden railroad toys that a New York company, RC2 Corp., sold under the Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway product line. RC2 had to recall 1.5 million of the toys earlier this year because of lead paint, which can cause vomiting, anemia and even neurological damage.
Chinese companies often have long supply chains, making it difficult to trace the exact origin of components, chemicals and food additives.