Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars, is recalling nearly one million toys in the United States today because the products' surfaces are covered in lead paint.
According to Mattel, all the toys were made by a contract manufacturer in China.
The recall, the second biggest this year involving toys, covers 83 different products, manufactured between April 19 and July 6. Many of them feature "Sesame Street" and Nickelodeon characters - including the Elmo Tub Sub, the Dora the Explorer Backpack, and the Giggle Gabber, a toy shaped like Elmo or Cookie Monster that toddlers shake to hear giggles and funny noises.
Mattel says it prevented more than two-thirds of the 967,000 affected toys from reaching consumers by contacting retailers, like Wal-Mart, Target and Toys 'R' Us, late last week. But more than 300,000 of the tainted toys have been purchased by consumers in the United States.
Mattel is hardly the first manufacturer to encounter a breakdown in the Chinese production chain. In recent months, factories in China have been sources of poisonous pet food sold in stores in the United States, dangerous car tires, and lead paint on the popular Thomas & Friends wooden toys. The Chinese government has said it is working to improve its product regulations, even as members of Congress have called for legislation requiring more inspections of imports from China.
This is Mattel's 17th recall in 10 years. Most recently, an infant swing made by its Fisher-Price division was taken off the market because of a risk children could be trapped in its moving parts. And in its largest consumer action involving toy safety, in 1998, the company recalled more than 10 million Power Wheels cars.
Speaking of the new recall, Nancy Nord, acting Consumer Product Safety Commission chairwoman, said in a statement, "These recalled toys have accessible lead in the paint and parents should not hesitate in taking them away from children." The statement said that the commission had launched an investigation and that "ensuring that Chinese made toys are safe for U.S. consumers is one of my highest priorities and is the subject of vital talks currently in place between C.P.S.C. and the Chinese government."
Earlier this summer, RC2, the maker of Thomas trains, recalled 1.5 million trains and accessories because a Chinese supplier had coated them in lead paint. At that time, consumer safety experts and toy industry analysts said that Mattel was unlikely to face such a problem.
"There are companies that live up to their obligations to the government as well as to consumers, and they are one of them," Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said of Mattel in mid-July.
But Mattel's safety checks - which include independent audits of facilities and ownership of many of its own factories in China - did not prevent the chain of events that led to today's recall.
In early July, according to Mattel executives, one of the European retailers that sells Mattel toys discovered the lead on some products. On July 6, Mattel stopped operations at the factory that produced the toys and initiated an investigation.
On July 18, Mattel took a reporter for The New York Times on a tour of a factory in Guanyao, China, and of Mattel's toy safety lab in Shenzhen. At that time, Mattel executives say, it was unclear whether Mattel was facing a widespread lead paint problem, or if the European case was an anomaly.
Last Thursday, the same day this newspaper ran an article on the subject of preventing safety violations in Chinese factories that focused on Mattel, the company's executives say they received conclusive data that convinced them to recall the 83 products. Then, the company contacted retailers who stocked the toys.
"This is a vendor plant with whom we've worked for 15 years; this isn't somebody that just started making toys for us," Robert Eckert, the chief executive of Mattel, said in an interview. "They understand our regulations, they understand our program, and something went wrong. That hurts."
Mattel requires the factories it contracts with to use paint and other materials provided by certified suppliers. Mattel executives said they do not know if the contract manufacturer substituted paint from a non-certified supplier or if a certified supplier caused the problem.
Mr. Eckert said Mattel is considering a wide range of ways to overcome the problem, including reducing the amount of toys it makes through contract factories. About 50 percent of Mattel's revenue comes from toys made in 11 factories it owns and operates. That is a high share for the toy industry.
But the other half comes from toys that it outsources to up to 50 manufacturers in China. Those toys tend to be short-term products that feature characters from movies and television shows rather than Barbie dolls or other Mattel brands.
In light of the recalls, Nickelodeon - which owns the characters Dora the Explorer and Diego - has decided to introduce a third-party monitor to check up on all of the companies that make toys under its brands, including Mattel.
Sesame Workshop, which oversees the "Sesame Street" franchise, is considering adding third-party testing, Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop, said in a statement.
This summer, the Toy Industry Association has been working with the Consumer Product Safety Commission on new regulations to require more stringent safety checks. Carter Keithley, president of the association, said the federal government needs to help the industry block China from using lead paint.
"We don't have lead paint in this country any more, and they shouldn't either," Mr. Keithley said of China. "If there was no lead paint, then we wouldn't have this problem."
Thomas G. Rawski, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who has visited factories in China regularly since 1975, though not toy factories, said companies there are trying to check product quality, but more improvements are needed.
"The mechanisms for preventing this stuff don't leap out of a tree," Mr. Rawski said. "They have to be built up carefully, and I think it's very clear this process of building is going on in China right now. That means there are lots of things happening that in an ideal world shouldn't be happening, including things that wouldn't happen in Japan or the U.S."
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