WASHINGTON – Mattel Inc. CEO Robert Eckert pledged Wednesday to work to improve toy safety, and insisted that the company acted responsibly in recalling millions of Chinese-made toys because they contained lead paint or small magnets.
Seeking to tamp down public outrage over a rash of recalls, Eckert acknowledged his El Segundo, Calif.-based company made mistakes by not closely overseeing subcontractors in China whose toys didn't meet U.S. safety standards. But he steadfastly disputed reports that Mattel was feuding with federal regulators over warning requirements and as a result didn't disclose quickly enough dangers of excessive lead paint and small magnets in toys that prompted an Aug. 14 recall of 19 million products worldwide.
"We are by no means perfect," Eckert said in prepared testimony to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. "But we have tackled difficult issues before and demonstrated an ability to make change for the better, not only within our own company but for the broader industry."
Under federal rules, manufacturers with a few exceptions must report all claims of potentially hazardous product defects within 24 hours. Mattel reportedly took months to gather information and privately investigate problems after receiving complaints from consumers.
On Wednesday, Eckert said Mattel has been working with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to "develop a new set of reporting protocols" but denied any suggestions of a feud.
"I believe that our actions, in close cooperation with the CPSC, in quickly identifying and announcing these recent lead recalls demonstrate that we are committed to the commission and its processes," Eckert said.
The hearing comes as manufacturers and retailers scramble to restore public confidence in the safety of toys made in the United States — particularly those made in China — as the busy holiday season approaches.
The CPSC, too, has come under fire for lax enforcement after seeing its budget and staff steadily drop from 786 employees in 1974 to an all-time low of 401 employees now, according to Consumers Union. Congress is currently pondering measures to improve oversight by boosting funding and stiffening fines.
In recent weeks, Mattel has recalled more than 21 million Chinese-made toys worldwide in a series of announcements. In June, toy maker RC2 Corp. voluntarily recalled 1.5 million railroad toys and set parts from its Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway product line because of lead paint. And in July, Hasbro Inc. recalled Chinese-made Easy Bake ovens on reports of second- and third-degree burns to children.
President Bush in July created a Cabinet-level panel to recommend ways to guarantee safety of imported food and other products brought into the country. On Tuesday, China signed an agreement to prohibit the use of lead paint on toys exported to the U.S.
"We know consumers are asking how they can be sure the toys they buy for their families are safe," Jerry Storch, chairman of Toys "R" Us Inc., told the Senate panel. He said the company would announce new measures this week to directly notify consumers of recalls with an e-mail notification system as well as bilingual recall notices.
"We support legislation shortening the timeframes during the period between identification of a problem and the eventual recall of that product," he said. "We are troubled by the possibility that we could be continuing to sell toys that someone knows may have a problem, while we remain unaware until we receive word that a recall is coming."