Recall of China-made toys unnerves parents

First it was Thomas the Tank Engine trains. Then Easy-Bake Ovens. And now Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster and Dora the Explorer.

All are beloved children's characters that were licensed to toy manufacturers who contracted with companies in China to make the toys. And all have had those toys recalled. Millions of them. Just since June.

The latest is Mattel mat, which announced Thursday that it was recalling 1.5 million toys made in China for the company's Fisher-Price division.

Those toys feature the Sesame Street characters — the big yellow one; the little red one; the hairy blue one — and Nickelodeon's adventuresome bilingual cartoon girl.

Mattel said it yanked the products before barely 30% showed up on retailers' shelves. Its CEO apologized to customers while telling shareholders of the world's No. 1 toymaker that the recall would reduce its second-quarter pretax operating income by $30 million from its previously reported $63.5 million. Mattel stock closed at $23.18 Thursday, down 40 cents.

The toys were recalled because of concerns about paint containing lead, which has been outlawed for use on U.S. toys since 1978. If eaten by children, lead can cause serious health issues. No injuries from these toys have been reported. "Our safety record is exemplary," said David Allmark, general manager of Fisher-Price. "All of us at Fisher-Price are devastated."

Will the recall affect the holiday shopping season? It's a small percentage of the toys sold in the USA, and retailers will have plenty on hand. But some analysts say it's too soon to tell. Some worry that consumers will be put off by the growing number of toy recalls.

More than $22 billion is spent on toys each year, not counting video games (another $12 billion).

"It's gotten to the point where something's going to have to happen or consumers will be more cautious about toys," says Chris Byrne, contributing editor of Toy Wishes magazine.

Many parents are worried already.

"It makes me nervous about the prospect of buying items that were made in China, specifically food and toys, since they can be hazardous to me and my family," said Joseph Nole of Nutley, N.J., who is a member of USA TODAY's shoppers panel. "I am finding it hard to trust China."

Wendy Greene of Orlando, another panel member, agrees. "I'll be incredibly wary of buying toys (for a niece) that may have been made in China. If I can, I'd prefer to buy American to support workers here."

Good luck. China manufactures 70% to 80% of the toys sold in the United States, estimates Byrne. One of the few toy companies that manufactures in the USA is the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. in Shelburne, Vt.

Author Sara Bongiorni and her family spent a year boycotting Chinese-made products in 2005, and wrote a book about it, A Year Without 'Made in China.'

"We had a real challenge shopping for Christmas and finding gifts that weren't from China," she says. "It was really hard to do." Their biggest problem was that once they found non-China-made toys, they were expensive or too "tasteful," and their kids didn't want them.

"They wanted cheap, colorful plastic things."

China's recall woes

China's big footprint in toy manufacturing has brought problems. Of the toys recalled so far this year, 30 of 32 have been made in China, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Toy Industry Association argues that stands to reason: China makes the most toys, so their products are more likely to be recalled.

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