The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced Thursday three more recalls on toys made in China, covering jewelry that the agency said could cause lead poisoning. They also covered a magnetic building set and plastic castles with small parts, which it said could choke children.
About 20,000 sets of Essentials for Kids Jewelry, sold by Future Industries of Cliffwood Beach, N.J., were recalled because the metal jewelry sets contain high levels of lead that can be toxic if ingested by young children, the agency said.
Additionally, 800 Mag Stix Magnetic Building Sets sold by Kipp Brothers of Carmel, Ind., and 68,000 Shape Sorting Toy Castles sold by Infantino LLC, of San Diego were pulled because they posed choking hazards to young children.
The orders add to the lengthening list of recent U.S. government actions to ban, recall or restrict Chinese imports — from juice to toothpaste — because they are suspected of containing high levels of toxins.
China has responded by stepping up enforcement of health and safety rules in the export industries that drive its economic growth. But Beijing also heatedly defends its record as a supplier of reliable goods, and has complained that safety warnings may be driven by protectionism.
The string of recalls has not gone unnoticed by shoppers, based on Associated Press interviews around the country.
"Here we're buying all of these products from China and they're not adhering to our standards. It's very disturbing," said Joanne Metler, a community college teacher in Chicago.
The food and safety issues are one more irritant in a trade relationship already strained by a ballooning U.S. deficit with China. That deficit hit $233 billion last year, the highest ever recorded with a single country. Imports of Chinese products into the United States totaled $288 billion while U.S. exports to China totaled $55 billion. That means for every $1 in goods the United States sells China, China sells the United States more than $5 in products.
Chinese exports to the United States last year were nearly triple the level of just five years ago. The flood of Chinese products has increased since China's entry into the World Trade Organization in late 2001, a development which removed many of the remaining U.S. barriers.
China is now the dominant supplier in a whole range of areas that go far beyond the athletic shoes and low-priced clothing that have traditionally displayed the Made in China label.
Of the toys sold in America, 80 percent are produced in China. China has become the top foreign source of tires in the United States with imports from all countries accounting for about 40 percent of the U.S. market last year. China is now the world's leading supplier of seafood, shipping $1.9 billion worth of fish and shellfish to the United States last year, making it the third biggest foreign supplier in the U.S. market.
The increase in imports, however, has been accompanied by rising numbers of defects being discovered. The number of Chinese-made products that are being recalled in the United States has doubled in the last five years. Chinese imports accounted for more than 60 percent of the recalls announced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission this year and all of the 24 toy recalls.
"The government of China is struggling to enforce the limited standards they have given the hundreds of thousands of Chinese firms in the export business," said Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the Peterson Institute, a Washington think tank.
Chinese officials, while accusing the media of hyping the problems, have moved to show they are taking the concerns seriously. China announced last week that it had closed down 180 food manufacturers that were found to have used industrial chemicals and additives in their products.
Donald Mays, senior director for product safety for Consumer Reports, said that many of the problems in China feature an element of unethical business practices.
"Pressure from the importers to keep prices low can sometimes force the factories to cut corners," Mays said. "That could mean leaving out a key safety feature."
One of the more recent toy recalls involved 1.5 million of the popular Thomas & Friends trains because the toys had been coated at a factory in China with lead paint, which can damage brain cells, especially in children.
The government ordered Foreign Tire Sales of Union, N.J., to recall 450,000 tires after the company notified regulators that some of the Chinese-made tires were missing a safety feature that keeps the tire tread from separating. The Chinese company denied the accusation.
The pet food products had been found to contain Chinese wheat flour spiked with the chemical melamine to make it appear like more expensive, protein-rich ingredients, while the Chinese-made toothpaste was found to contain an ingredient often used in antifreeze. The Food and Drug Administration on June 28 placed restrictions on imports of Chinese shrimp, catfish, eel, basa and dace after finding residues of drugs the FDA does not allow in fish.
Many shoppers in the AP interviews said they still planned to buy Chinese products because of the low prices.
"There's always a trade off — quality versus cost," said Panneer Gangatharan, a 31-year-old software consultant in Pasadena, Calif. "I'm not sure how feasible it is for the United States to do anything about it, because the volume of products we're buying from overseas is huge."
Economists say it is unlikely that the current uproar over Chinese goods will make a dent in the flood of imports from that country or America's trade deficit with China.
"Ultimately, the U.S. consumer is attracted to cheap Chinese goods. As long as they keep the price low, U.S. consumers will keep buying," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.