Though China pledged Tuesday to resolve the use of lead paint in toys it manufactures for the United States, today senators took toy makers and safety commissioners to task as to why those imports weren't subject to more stringent tests on American shores.
Anything more than trace levels of lead in toys, they pointed out, has been illegal in the United States for nearly 30 years. But over the course of that time, the watchdog agency that inspects products for safety has been beset by budget cuts: Nearly 1,000 inspectors worked for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 1980; slightly more than 400 work there now, though foreign commerce has boomed.
In the wake of recent product recalls -- everything from toys to dog food to toothpaste, all imports from China -- the CPSC commissioners testified today that new legislation could better help them do their jobs.
For his part, the Mattel CEO Robert Eckert apologized to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the lead paint in toys that led to three enormous toy recalls this summer.
"I know this subcommittee and the American people want to know how lead got onto our products and what steps we're taking to ensure that this doesn't happen again. Simply put, our systems were circumvented and our standards were violated," Eckert said before the Senate panel.
In one particularly heated exchange, Subcommittee Chair Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and CPSC Acting Chair Nancy Nord went head to head.
Nord argued that the state of Chinese internal standards were "up to the Chinese."
Durbin shot back, "If this is a memorandum of understanding an agreement with the Chinese, what they do internally is not up to the Chinese if it comes to the United States. That's what this is about. I'm asking you if there's a new lead standard agreed to in this agreement with China for lead or lead paint. I've said three times. Is there or isn't there?"
Nord contended that "the Chinese have agreed to eliminate any lead paint used in toys exported to the United States."
"Is this a new standard?" Durbin questioned.
Nord reiterated, "Sir, again, you will have to ask the Chinese what the state of the Chinese law is."
After a back and forth with Durbin over recent recalls, Nord explained, "There is no rule in place, that's what I'm trying to tell you. We deal with this. We've got an enforcement that we're enforcing. I would like to have a rule because that is a much stronger regulatory tool. Until we get a rule in place we will enforce our enforcement policy."
Durbin retorted: "What you've just told me is no conciliation to the families across America that you are somehow caught up in a rule-making process when you know that one out of five pieces of children's jewelry has dangerous lead content. We expect, Americans expect our government to act to protect families and children."
He continued, "If that is the case, then I think either the law or the commission need to change."
It's a law Durbin and other Democrats are eager to change. At today's hearing, the senators displayed pictures of the lone, cluttered lab where the single CPSC official in charge of testing toys toils away.
They've introduced legislation to revamp the CPSC, hire more inspectors, improve testing facilities and give the agency more legislative authority for recalls and sanctions against specific companies.
Eckert tried to allay concerns by pointing to the rapid response Mattel enacted in the wake of its massive recalls: beefing up requirements for paint, double-checking every batch and increasing unannounced inspections of contractors and subcontractors. Mattel also created a Web site and an 800 number to specifically spread information.
Toys 'R' Us CEO Jerry Storch testified that similar requirements have been enacted in his company.
Eckert said 65 percent of Mattel toys are produced in China; Storch said 80 percent of dolls and action figures sold at his stores are produced there.
Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, who also sits on the committee, said the problem is more systemic than just toys and should be dealt with in "a swift and vigorous way."
Brownback argued that a country like the United State is more likely to produce safe products and more likely to catch defective ones.
"One of the ways in which a nondemocratic like China is usurping the way in which business is being conducted around the globe is through manipulation of its production system and particularly of its currency," Brownback said.
Ultimately, Brownback said the United States indirectly supports governments in Sudan and Iran -- both backed by China -- because Americans buy so many Chinese imports.
The CPSC commissioners' testimony, in particular, lacked the answers the Senate panel was looking for.
Both commissioners in attendance, Nord and Thomas Moore, gave statements, but when Moore left early for a dental appointment at the onset of committee questionings, Nord joked, "Are you leaving? Can I come with you?"
In a moment of levity, Durbin, known to be a bit of a jokester when permitted, leaned into his microphone and channeled Lawrence Olivier's character Dr. Christian Szell, the Nazi diamond thief/maniacal dentist in the 1976 classic thriller "Marathon Man."
"Is it safe?" Durbin said in a low voice, imitating Olivier.
During the exchange, Durbin told Nord, "You're facing your own dentist here."
Nord quipped, "It's a sad day when you'd rather go to the dentist."