BEIJING – China on Thursday said a global recall of millions of its toys was the responsible thing to do, but said that was the result of new industry standards — not poor quality.
Meanwhile, a Cabinet-level panel announced the launch of a nationwide safety campaign focused on food and drugs, as well as increased monitoring of exports. The measures underscored government efforts to win back consumer confidence.
Earlier this month, Mattel Inc. recalled almost 19 million Chinese-made items around the world including dolls, cars and action figures. Some were contaminated with lead paint, while others had small, powerful magnets that children might swallow and damage their organs.
Vice Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said 18.2 million of the recalled products — including popular Polly Pocket dolls and Barbie play sets — were pulled off the shelves because of a May revision of standards involving magnets.
"The U.S. dealer voluntarily recalled the toys that were made and sold before 2007, which at the time conformed to standards. This is a very responsible action for the health of children and consumers," Gao said at a news conference.
"But strictly speaking, it has nothing to do with the toys' quality or its manufacturers," Gao said.
Mattel first announced a recall involving magnets in November 2006, after several Polly Pocket-related injures were reported.
It extended that recall this month following the change in industry standards that required safety warnings for toys with magnets or magnetic components not attached tightly.
Toys are the latest in the long list of Chinese exports that have come under intense scrutiny in recent months because of safety concerns. Toxic chemicals have been found in products ranging from toothpaste to seafood and pet food ingredients.
On Wednesday, the U.S. announced recalls of tens of thousands of Chinese-made children's products because of lead hazards. Childhood exposure to lead can cause learning problems, reduced intelligence, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder.
The products included about 250,000 spiral-bound SpongeBob SquarePants address books and journals, as well as 66,000 spinning tops and about 4,700 pails painted with Thomas & Friends, Curious George, circus scenes or solid colors.
Also recalled were about 14,000 TOBY & ME jewelry sets and 7,900 Children's Divine Inspiration Charm Bracelets, which were found to contain high levels of lead. No injuries had been reported from any of the recalled items.
"There are still many problems in product quality and food safety in some places, industries and companies," Vice Premier Wu Yi, who is heading up a Cabinet-level panel on product quality and food safety, said at a conference where the safety campaign was announced Thursday.
The program, which will end in December, will ban false advertising, require all food producers to be certified and increase inspections for food, drugs, and agricultural products, Wu was quoted as saying on the government's Web site.
She also said that production areas for exported food will be examined and packaging will have inspection and quarantine symbols.
"Those criminals who produce or sell fake products will be seriously punished according to law," said Li Changjiang, who heads China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.
Also Thursday, Chinese state media reported that toy makers will face tougher quality checks in Guangdong province, where many of the recalled Mattel toys were manufactured.
Makers of toys for export will have to undergo "quality licensing" as part of a new inspection system launched this week, the China Daily newspaper reported.
"We will keep a closer watch on not only finished products but also on potentially dangerous chemicals and paints," an unidentified official with the Guangdong Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau was quoted as saying.
"And we will keep records concerning suppliers of potentially dangerous chemicals for toys and toy subcontractors," said the official in Guangdong, an export manufacturing base for a large percentage of Chinese products.
Gao said Mattel should also share the responsibility in the latest recall because it did not conduct "strict examinations" when it received toy shipments.
But, he said, China was taking the quality issue seriously.
"Even if there is only 1 percent of products that have quality problems, we will seek to establish the facts and take them very seriously and investigate and punish those companies involved," he said.