More recalls have China, importers scrambling to shore up consumer confidence
Australia is the latest country to raise concerns about the safety of imported products from China, while Wal-Mart reacted to mounting public pressure at home to ensure imported products are safe.
Last week the Australian government's consumer watchdog agency said it has begun testing a wide range of clothing for 'significant residual formaldehyde,' following two recalls of blankets recent months and news reports from New Zealand of children's and adult clothing containing excessive levels of the chemical.
The announcement by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission did not mention China as the source of the clothing or the target of testing, but a Financial Times article said the products came from China. The paper said importers recalled the blankets because they contained three times the acceptable level of the chemical, based on European standards. Australia is working to develop its own standard.
Formaldehyde can cause skin or respiratory irritation in some individuals and is a cancer-causing agent.
There is no evidence beyond the recalled items of a formaldehyde problem in the Australian market at this time, the ACCC said.
Meanwhile, authorities in Saudi Arabia last week ordered stores to remove seven brands of toothpaste from China because tests showed traces of diethylene glycol, used in antifreeze and solvents, according to the Saudi Press Agency. The chemical also was found this year in some toothpaste from China sold in U.S. thrift stores and in other countries. The government ordered laboratories not to allow any toothpaste to be sold before checking for diethylene glycol.
The country's official news agency also reported Saturday that the Ministry of Commerce ordered the recall of 2,300 toys made in China because of possible lead paint. The government is testing to see if toys contain any hazardous chemicals after Mattel Inc., which has recalled 19 million toys in the U.S. market, warned its agents in Saudi Arabia about the possible lead contamination.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also issued recalls for several children's products. It recalled 250,000 Chinese-made Sponge Bob SquarePants notebooks and address books imported by Martin Designs of Ashland, Ohio, because of unsafe levels of lead in the spiral bindings. The agency also recalled 66,000 Curious George and Thomas and Friends spinning tops, and 4,700 tin pails due to excessive lead levels in the paint. The items were imported by Schylling Associates, Rowley, Mass.
Also recalled for lead exposure reasons were charm bracelets sold in dollar stores by Buy-Rite Designs, Freehold, N.J.
Lead can cause brain damage.
Wal-Mart last week said it took the initiative to remove Chicken Jerky dog treats from its shelves on July 26 while it tested for melamine, a chemical agent that earlier this year led to several pet deaths and a massive pet food recall. Wal-Mart said its labs discovered trace amounts of melamine, and that the product will not be sold until further testing is completed. The giant retailer said it took the extra precaution of putting a computerized block on the product at the cash register and urged consumers to return the product for a refund. The dog treats were manufactured by Import-Pingyang Pet Product Co. and Shanghai Bestro Trading.
Wal-Mart also announced a five-point plan to reassure consumers that it is checking the safety of the toys it sells.
The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer asked all suppliers to resubmit testing documentation for toys currently on Wal-Mart shelves or en route to stores and has hired independent labs to carry out an average of 200 additional tests per day. It said the testing complements tests done by toy manufacturers and ensures that small toy makers also have access to credible test facilities. Initial testing will be targeted at toys with paint and small magnets targeted at children three years and under.
Wal-Mart said it will share the results of its tests with the whole toy industry and plans to team up with the Toy Industry Association later this month to support new measures aimed at ensuring higher safety standards.
The company also said it stands ready to help leaders in China who are implementing new testing procedures to ensure high safety standards. And it said it would look all over the world for new toy products to market.
'Parents need reassurance over quality and safety -we feel the very same way and will work night and day to help. Our commitment to low prices does not come at any cost,' Laura Phillips, Wal-Mart's merchandise manager for toys, said in a statement.
The U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection announced a hearing on Sept. 19 to look into the issue of lead-tainted children's products from China and possible legislation to prevent their entry into the country. The subcommittee sent requests to 19 companies, including Mattel, RC2 Corp., Target, and Dollar General Merchandising Inc., to explain their sourcing and inspection methods for toys. The companies were selected because they imported toys or jewelry that was recalled this year.
'China's trade policies have long undermined America's economic interests,' said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., the ranking member of the subcommittee. 'Now we are seeing Chinese imports posing a serious health threat throughout the nation. I am especially concerned with the use of lead paint in toys and the special health risks for children.'
In letters to the 19 companies, the subcommittee asked whether contracts with Chinese, Indian or other manufacturers include provisions banning the use of lead paint or limiting its use to legal levels.
All this has China scrambling to protect the reputation of its manufacturing sector, on which so much of its export wealth depends. Reuters reported that China's Vice Premier Wu Yi called for a four month campaign to weed out tainted food and drugs from the domestic and export market.
Wu blamed lax inspection and enforcement and failure of officials in rival agencies to cooperate. She vowed to whip them into line with a list of eight tasks and 20 specific goals, according to Reuters.
In the latest health scare the Shanghai Daily reported on Friday that city officials had seized more than a ton of kelp soaked in a toxic chemical to keep it looking fresh. They also found fake wine and vinegar.
Wu, who previously was named head of a leading group on product safety, announced targets to clean up pig slaughtering, restaurants and canteens, pesticide use, food additives and the country’s vital exports. She defended the general quality of food exports but said there were also deep-seated problems.
'In some businesses the management level is low, production conditions are poor, quality levels and standards are low, and reliability is weak,' she said.