Mattel mat announced another recall of lead-tainted toys from China late Tuesday, its third such announcement in about a month.
The recall of nearly 800,000 Fisher-Price and parent company Mattel-brand products includes Barbie accessories, such as lead-tainted puppies and cats; GeoTrax trains; and toy bongo drums. All were sold within the last year.
Children can get lead poisoning from sucking on or swallowing toys or jewelry with lead. Lead can cause learning and behavior problems and even death.
The recall comes as relations between Mattel and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are strained by disagreement on when product hazards are to be reported. Mattel paid civil penalties of $975,000 this year for failing to report incidents with the Fisher-Price Little People Animal Sounds Farm and $1.1 million in 2001 for not telling the agency soon enough about fire hazards with Power Wheels ride-on vehicles.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Mattel CEO Robert Eckert said he disagrees with CPSC's rule that hazards need to be reported to the agency typically within 24 hours. According to the story, Eckert said Mattel prefers to do its own investigations first.
Eckert told USA TODAY Tuesday night that he believes "there are vagaries in the law," specifically when it says CPSC has to be promptly notified when a product could be hazardous. That, he says, could require "the benefit of hindsight." He says Mattel does "pass along" reports of injuries and incidents to CPSC, but the "debate is over what's timely."
"The reporting obligation is extremely clear, and the same rules apply to any company, big or small," CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese said Tuesday.
Mattel's stance underscores why civil penalty caps need to be higher to deter big companies from violating product safety laws, says Pamela Gilbert, CPSC executive director during the Clinton administration. Legislation is pending in Congress to raise the maximum civil penalties CPSC can assess.
Eckert says subcontractors used by its suppliers violated its prohibition on lead paint, which has been banned in children's toys since 1978. Mattel has stepped up oversight of production and testing.
"We've now tested all the toys we're making in Asia," says Eckert. "This system is in place and working." Asked if there will be anymore recalls soon, he added, "Never say never."
Lead in toys is an even bigger problem than it appears if it can ensnare a company such as Mattel, says Alan Korn at advocacy group Safe Kids Worldwide: "It always concerns us when such an iconic brand as Mattel seems to have a problem with lead paint on their toys, given the number of units involved."
A complete list of recalled products is at cpsc.gov.