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China Struggles to Improve Product-Safety Image Following Series of Recalls

  • Naomi Martig

China's government is scrambling to improve its product-safety image following yet another massive recall of Chinese-made products. The latest case, announced by a major U.S. toy maker Tuesday, involves the recall of more than 700,000 toys tainted with excessive levels of lead. VOA's Naomi Martig reports from Hong Kong.

Mattel Incorporated and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission say 675,000 accessories for "Barbie" dolls, and more than 90,000 products for Mattel's Fisher-Price brand, are being recalled.

The U.S. agency says paint on the products contains excessive levels of lead, which can cause brain damage.

The announcement is Mattel's third major recall of Chinese-made products since July, and another blow to the already damaged image of Chinese exports.

Other safety concerns involving Chinese-made products have included toothpaste that contained a compound found in automobile antifreeze, and tainted pet food.

David Zweig is a professor at the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He says China is aware of the damage being done, and says the government is taking steps to improve its product-safety image.

"This has gone on long enough. This isn't a wake-up call. You know, this is like the alarms gone off - did they fall asleep again? - you know, alarms gone off again. I think the central government is very aware of this," Zweig said. "The [Chinese] Food and Drug Administration is very aware of this, they have a product quality office, a special office that's responsible for product quality. They're very active right now, running around the country."

Zweig says China's central government has notified local officials that they could lose their jobs if products coming from their areas do not meet safety standards.

He says Beijing should be concerned that the recalls do not become part of larger trade conflicts - particularly with the United States, which is experiencing a massive trade deficit with China.

"Already many members of Congress are angry about the trade deficit, and that is why I think in part this becomes somewhat inflammatory," Zweig said. "Because they can even say, 'Look, not only are the Chinese keeping an over-valued RMB, and also closing American firms, but now they are selling products that are killing our children.' So it's great for hyperbole. Great for members of Congress who want to scream."

Chinese officials argue that the majority of its exports are safe, and that the news media are exaggerating the extent of the problem. On Tuesday, officials in the southern city of Guangzhou invited foreign journalists to a toy factory to demonstrate improvements in quality control.

China accounts for about 70 percent of worldwide toy exports, and 80 percent of all toys sold in the United States. Chinese officials say the toy industry's exports were worth $7 billion in 2006.