Manufacturers Share the Blame for Product Recalls

The tainted products may be manufactured in China, but the American companies whose brands they carry share much of the blame, according to people who work in China and do business there. These observers say for American companies it's all about cutting costs, which in many cases means cutting corners and standards.

Government-imposed manufacturing standards are virtually nonexistent in China; therefore the onus falls on Western companies. So if a Western company wants high standards it can pay for them. If it wants to compromise quality, as manufacturers of low-cost products sometimes do, that is entirely possible as well.

"I lay a lot of responsibility at the hands of American purchasing companies," said James Fallows, a writer who has spent an extensive amount of time looking into conditions in Chinese factories.

"American companies that have wanted to make sure standards are high enough, they are," Fallows added in a telephone conversation as he stood in the manufacturing metropolis of Shanghai and looked out over People's Square.

Gordon McBean of Roth Capital, who has lengthy experience surveying Chinese manufacturing facilities from an investor's vantage point, agrees.

"Responsibility belongs to the end seller of the product, the distributor in the U.S. The guys in the U.S. can do a lot about controlling quality. Communication is better [between the U.S. and China] than it's ever been – there are bilingual folks, travel back and forth is easier, setting up offices in China is much easier. There is no excuse for a company not to have strong oversight."

On Tuesday Mattel issued its second major recall of toys believed to contain lead paint in as many weeks, casting doubt on the safety and manufacturing standards at Chinese factories where 80 percent of the world's toys and millions of other goods are produced.

A Mattel spokesman blamed the Chinese manufacturers for the problem, saying the toy manufacturer requires its subcontractors to test toys for lead paint and other defects. "If these vendors and their subcontractors had adhered to our procedures, we won't have this issue," he said.

In issuing the recall, Mattel is not alone – toy manufacturing competitors, a toothpaste company and a tire manufacturer have all issued recalls of Chinese-made products this summer, suffering major blows to both their checkbooks and reputations.

In industries where competitive forces require high standards, manufacturing quality tends to meet the demands of the market; take for instance Apple's iPod or the computer you are using to read this article.

But if the market for lower-end products, say toys, happens to value low cost over high-quality, companies will tend to meet that demand as well. And that, the experts say, is how these recalls come about.

"Mattel, whose name is on these toys, certainly is responsible for the things that go out and are sold under its name," said William Kirby, a historian of modern China at Harvard. "To be shocked about conditions in Chinese factories after more than a decade of close cooperation between Chinese toy manufacturers and American distributors is not terribly believable."

And the complexity of Chinese supply chains is also partly to blame for the quality control issues we are now witnessing, said Scott Alberts, who has been manufacturing in China for almost 30 years.

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