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Fri, Sep 14, 2007 - Page 10 News List

Mattel boss vows to improve toy safety

GETTING SERIOUS Accusing the toy industry of inadequate safety measures, US senators proposed a long list of legislative changes to root out dangerous goods

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar holds a toy train as she testifies on Wednesday before a hearing of the US Senate Appropriations Committee's Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on toy safety standards on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Mattel's chief executive apologized to the US Congress on Wednesday for failing to stop toys coated in lead paint from reaching consumers and vowed to take immediate steps to prevent it from happening again.

"I can't change the past, but I am changing how we do things," Mattel chief executive Robert Eckert said in testimony before a Senate subcommittee.

But senators at the hearing said the safety measures promised by Eckert and others in the toy industry are inadequate. They proposed a long list of legislative changes that go much further -- including increased fines for selling or failing to report dangerous goods and a prohibition, backed by possible criminal prosecution, against retailers selling recalled products.

"This is getting serious," Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar said. "It is time for us to take action."

Senators also called for a revamping of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, including giving it the power to ban lead in all children's toys, funds to increase the number of inspectors at ports and compliance officers in the field, and a better-equipped and better-staffed testing laboratory.

Mattel, the US' largest toy company, and other members of the Toy Industry Association, whose members are collectively responsible for 85 percent of toys sold in the US, support a federal mandate that toys be tested by independent laboratories before they are sold.

Failure by all parties to properly do such testing has "left our companies, the industry and most importantly our children exposed," Toy Industry Association president Carter Keithley testified.

Toys "R" Us chairman Gerald Storch said the government and toy manufacturers should find a way to hasten the recall of products after flaws are discovered.

"We are troubled by the possibility that we could be continuing to sell toys that someone knows may have a problem, while we remain unaware until we receive word that a recall is coming," Storch said.

The hearing took place in a crowded chamber framed by two illustrations propped up behind the senators: one with a photograph of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's sole full-time toy tester in a cramped, poorly equipped laboratory, and a second with a chart showing that most of the consumer products recalled in the US since December came from China.

Consumer Product Safety Commission acting chairwoman Nancy Nord said she agreed with many of the proposals to confront these two problems, acknowledging, for example, that the agency's laboratory in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was woefully inadequate.

"It is an incredibly inefficient facility," she said of the lab, which is in a 1950s-era former missile defense site outside Washington.

But Democrats and the one Republican senator at the hearing -- held by a Senate appropriations subcommittee -- expressed frustration with progress enforcing safety rules, particularly concerning flawed goods from China.

"We need to start pulling the club out," said Republican Senator Sam Brownback, who is a presidential candidate.

Nord said it would help if Customs and Border Protection, which has a much larger force of inspectors at US ports, could do more to help enforce consumer safety laws.

Eckert was questioned about allegations that his company intentionally delayed notifying US authorities about initial reports that some of its toys contained lead.

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