From this morning's New York Times:
"Mattel, the world’s largest toy company, is expected as early as today to announce its second major recall in a month of defective toys that were made in China, according to people who work with the company."
If true this is unfortunate because of all of the toys and families affected, but also because consumers do not understand how the sub-contracting relationships common in overseas manufacturing make incidents like this likely. To explain why bad products get through the quality process of even an apparently rigorous company like Mattel, I'll try to conjure a domestic analogy to the informality inherent in manufacturing outside the US.
Several years ago, my friend's father's machine shop received a contract from an auto maker to manufacture small strips of industrial strength hook and loop fasteners (ie, generic heavy-duty Velcro) that were designed to hold windshields into place during the assembly process, while the glue adhering them to the vehicle set. The shop had to cut giant rolls of Velcro down into half a million small pairs. In a practice, this meant that my friend ended up working the press for an entire summer vacation from college, and his dad technically became a Tier 4 or 5 auto supplier. The quality control process was essentially to make sure that the right type of fastener was cut into the right length of strip so that the windshield didn't fall off the car. Since you don't hear much about sudden windshield failure ("SWF") in the press, the system works.
Imagine for a moment though that instead of the Midwest the shop was in Shenzhen, and instead of Velcro the shop supplied a component to a larger factory that produced toys on behalf of a giant company that did not own it's own production facilities - in effect, the same type of sub-contractor relationship prevalent in the US auto industry. It could be blister clamshells, or printed backcards, or tiny wheels, or the little piece of injected plastic that forms the windshield and backlight on die-cast cars. It could be the little plastic cannon that goes into the box with an action figure, or it could be the paint they use to airbrush its costume. Now say the larger factory purchased the paint from a supplier who guaranteed the paint to be "lead free," because lead-free paint was specified by the toy company. But did the specification mention other toxins beyond lead should also be left out? And when the paint was manufactured, was the lead from the previous paint batch rinsed from the vat?
These are hypothetical situations, but even if with a tight quality control process in place, there must be a good chance that manufacturers don't know what is happening multiple factories upstream. In the case of windshield velcro, boat shoes or lawn ornaments that may be no big deal. For some products though, it might be disastrous. Mattel, at least, seems scrupulous enough to try to get back unsafe products. If it shines some light on this issue then we can try to view these recalls as a positive.
Conscientious manufacturers specify that certain types of materials must be used in their products, inspect and test during and after assembly, and sample products that arrive for sale to make sure that the production specifications were followed. Even so, we should not be surprised that unsafe products sometimes get through the gaps, simply because of the vast quantities of products arriving and the complexity of the manufacturing infrastructure.
Does this excuse the maker, and can we do anything to look out for ourselves in the future? There's no modern Upton Sinclair shouting about overseas safety and working conditions, but we should care a lot about them because they obviously have a direct and huge impact on our lives. On my desk right now is a computer from Hong Kong, a card reader and phone from Taiwan, a camera from Japan, and a stapler, clock radio, leather pen cup, and picture frame from China. My tape dispenser appears to be from St. Paul. Our everything comes from all over, which heightens the need to be a smart consumer. It is a given that we need to buy things, and to panic would be to overreact, but the repeated instances of unsafe products getting to market that have received considerable media attention lately makes it difficult to trust that merely because a product comes from a big brand or a big store the supply chain is safe. This would be an ideal time for manufacturers to take a hard look at their controls and make clear to consumers that they won't bring unsafe products to market.
Update: Looks like they're already taking this advice (video link). Let's hope it's a message for all manufacturers.