Mattel Thought They Could Outsmart The Chinese Poison Train

Two weeks before announcing the recall of nearly 1 million toys tainted with toxic lead paint, Mattel was featured in the New York Times as a role model, the “gold standard” for companies manufacturing goods in China. The Chinese Poison Train’s ability to sneak past Mattel’s fortified defenses highlights the tremendous difficulties faced by well-meaning American manufacturers trying to police their supply chains. Mattel spared no expense to ensure the safety of their products.

Rather than contract its manufacturing out to the lowest bidder, Mattel owns the factories that assemble their toys destined for export. The integrity of the supply chain is paramount:

Elisha Chan, the director of product integrity and corporate responsibility, is charged with guarding against dangerous defects like lead-based paint. Suppliers are closely monitored, he says, and sending in fake or tainted supplies is a ticket to losing the contract with Mattel. And some vendors have, says Mr. Chan.

Professor Johnson of Dartmouth visited the Guanyao factory while it was under construction. “I was impressed that they were spending a lot more time and money building dorms,” he said, comparing the factory with those of other companies. “Mattel’s China partner working to build that factory could not understand why they’d be wasting this money on all these things.”

Mattel says that it can control the quality of its toys better because it owns factories like this one. Before the company approves any of its new toys — some 5,000 each year — it produces small batches.

Once full-scale production begins, toys are pulled off the line periodically and supplies are tested as they come in the door.

The extensive testing did not detect toys covered with toxic lead paint. The investigation that led to today’s recall started last month after a report from a European retailer warned that there was, “lead on some products.”

Mattel’s defeat at the hands of the Chinese Poison Train is a significant setback for our confidence in the ability of American companies to vouch for the quality of their imported goods. If Mattel isn’t able to protect their goods, even with a system specifically designed to mitigate the risks of manufacturing in China, we’re not sure what measures will keep the Chinese Poison Train at bay.

Toymaking in China, Mattel’s Way [NYT]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Buran says:



    Fixed in four words.

  2. joeblevins says:

    The picture is actually scarier than the story.

    How dangerous is a little bit of lead paint? I understand that prolonged exposure to lots of it is bad. But I can’t imagine a toys worth really would cause any issues at all.

  3. ChewySquirrel says:

    @Buran: That’s not a solution unless you want to pay 3-4 times more for everything.

  4. ptkdude says:

    @joeblevins: children put EVERYTHING in their mouths.

    When shopping for a birthday gift for my 1 year old niece, I found lots of stuff I liked for her, but put it all back when I flipped the box and saw “Made in China”. Even though the box said “non-toxic” and the sales lady said the same, I just can’t trust anything made in China.

  5. Buran says:

    @ChewySquirrel: Really? Then why did I pay the same price for some socks made in the USA than for the socks made in China right next to them at the store?

    And yes, I would pay. Yes, it is a solution. Yes, lots of other people would too. We’re sick of this crap.

    THERE IS AN ANSWER. But these people are too spineless to do it.

  6. juri squared says:

    @joeblevins: I’m not sure how dangerous it is, but they DO put everything in their mouths. My four-month-old has already started doing it. I could easily see her ingesting paint off toys, especially once she has some teeth.

  7. agent2600 says:

    @ChewySquirrel: @Buran:

    Embargo China…ya makes sense to me to. The only reason things from china are cheaper are because americans arn’t willing to sell themselves out like the chinese are (don’t give me that they have to work to live bullshit, most of the workers in chinese factories come from substance farming communities, and only come to factories to work because of the chinese governments consumerism brainwashing)

    I would pay more for things that don’t break

    remember in the early 90s…electronics made in japan and USA = good in taiwan ok in china = bad

    still holds true today, people just like to pretend that chinese goods arn’t subpar

    and don’t think that america is the only country in this problem right now, Japan is in the same dabacial

    right now the chinese government is brainwashing and selling out its own people to just pump more money into the country. the fact that we are supporting it makes us just as bad as the chinese factories that cut corners.

  8. wessev says:

    I wonder at what point companies will find that it is no longer cost effective for them to continue to outsource their manufacturing to the third world. Surely the cost of recalls, potential lawsuits and the bad publicity when a recall has to be done has to eat away at whatever savings these companies get from outsourcing and exploiting cheap labor.

  9. timmus says:


  10. royal72 says:

    as long as you continue to buy the cheapest disposable products and support retailers like walmart and manufacturers using the equivalent of slave labor, this will just continue… so quit your damn bitching or change your habits.

  11. Buran says:

    @royal72: Excuse me, but some of us are doing exactly that, and we still get this unacceptable treatment. I politely suggest you not make baseless accusations.

  12. Crazytree says:

    @ChewySquirrel: so an Elmo doll would cost $120 if it was made in the US?

    color me skeptical.

  13. royal72 says:

    @Buran: lol my apologies and let me adjust my statement…

    as long as everyone (not including buran) continues to buy the cheapest disposable products and support retailers like walmart and manufacturers using the equivalent of slave labor, this will just continue… so quit your (not including buran) bitching and change your habits.

  14. Lordstrom says:

    Cutting China out would help bring value back to the dollar by raising prices of goods back to “real” levels. It’s actually absurd how much crap people can buy even with a minimum wage job, when they should be saving money.

  15. Buran says:

    @royal72: thank you. The “everyone on the faceless internet is the same” assumptions do get tiring …

  16. miborovsky says:

    @agent2600: “chinese governments consumerism brainwashing”

    And that’s BAD? YOU COMMIE!!!

  17. Karl says:

    Even if these toys were made in the US, it’s likely that their components would still be made overseas. It seems like one of their suppliers decided to give the lead paint (for whatever reason) and their checks missed it. If the paint is still imported, it’d still contain lead. Remember, a lot of the pet food that was contaminated was made in the US, with some foreign ingredients.

    Of course, the theory that US companies are more ethical or safer than foreign companies seems dubious. Remember Enron, Worldcom, all of the stock options scandals, the Ford Explorer rollovers, fen-phen, Vioxx, etc?

  18. MisterE says:


    I agree with you! I also wonder if this is also some conspiracy to devalue the Chinese yen while the U.S. greenback is still sinking against other world currencies. Perhaps the plan is to suddenly exploit the poisons, the hazards, etc from China to the point where U.S. manufacturers will suddenly have a need to come back to the U.S – thus giving the U.S. economy the shot in the arm it needs to regain it’s global competitiveness.

    I know it sounds crazy, but it just might work!

  19. marsneedsrabbits says:

    We may end up with a few less toys because of the increased expense, but we have been buying wooden toys and blocks, and cloth dolls for our child. So far, in her almost 2 years on the planet, none of my little one’s toys have been recalled, which is good. We probably have fewer toys because of the increased expense, but we think that is not a bad thing (and we still have plenty of toys).
    Cheapest is not always best, especially where kids are concerned.
    Also, would it be that difficult to test products for lead more frequently? Mattel/Fisher Price is a huge company, and the kind of lead tests done with swabs are cheap. I’ve done them on ceramics of questionable origin before to test glaze.
    This has really gotten beyond scary to the point that I seem to be reading every label on every thing that comes into our home. I now reject a lot of things (food especially).
    Maybe that is what I should have been doing all along, though.

  20. Havok154 says:

    The problem isn’t with a lot of the people on these boards, the problem is with those people that never keep up on consumer news and all of the stuff we do. The mass market just goes out and buys everything and anything without any regard for the safety of the product or where it has come from. As long as it’s “a bargain”.

  21. shoegazer says:

    Yes, people are pretty much preaching to the choir here. Bad quality control leads to poison train, fine.

    Just to be devils’ advocate, how certain are you that “Made in the USA” will provide any more reassurance that the product is better / higher quality / less poisonous? At least in China they can execute their FDA guy.

  22. Trust_Shattered says:

    Mattel’s safety checks on products manufactured in China are touted as the industries best. The level of intentional deception needed to get tainted products through is unfathomable. This Chinese factory was deliberately poisoning our children so they could cut corners and make a bigger prophet. Rather then taking the responsibility and properly regulating their factories, the Chinese government remains in denial and on the defensive. This is 100% completely unforgivable.

    You may be surprised to know that this comment is coming from someone who was previously very comfortable with our trading practices with China.

  23. agent2600 says:


    I’m pretty young, but i was around for the end of the “Made in the USA or EU or Japan” era…products made in these countries were always better.

    I think it has a lot to do with the regulations on workers wages, when people are getting paid a approprate amount for the type/amount of work they do, they tend to produce higher quality good. I meen look at “Made in Taiwan” products, though not nearly as regulated as the US or Japan, there is still much higher standards there then in China…and well…look at taiwanese products, usally they are fairly good.

    Now if Geek Squad could just realize this, we would be in bussiness :-p.

  24. The idea that ‘brand’ can distract consumers from the reality of how, where, and why things are made is slowly going the way of broadcast television and buggy whips. It’s not a tidal wave or trend of revelation yet, but every time a crisis or less scary discovery pits reality vs. branding nonsense in stark, clear terms, the branding always loses. The challenge is to keep consumers educated, which will keep companies alert and engaged. I’ve written in some detail about the brand implications of this subject at Dim Bulb, [], if you’d like to check it out.

  25. miburo says:

    Sounding off on this message board doesn’t do much. How about writing your congress rep, the companies themselves and buying the more expensive products?

    Everyone knows cheap prices = cheap products. You seriously think Americans would work for anywhere near the cost of Chinese factory workers?

    Lets Check Reality here for a second
    These workers work basically YEAR round with little vacation roughly 40-60 hours a day (if you think they abide by overtime laws you are fooling only yourself)

    They earn hundreds a month, as in a few hundreds.

    Just calculate the cost increase if you were to put America workers even at minimum wage.

    Oh and on buying cheap goods and pushing down prices all the time.. Just look how popular Wal-Marts are in the US.

    This stuff isn’t going to fix itself anytime soon people. Down the road maybe, but not anytime soon.

  26. Kaneohe7 says:

    You always hear people say that everything will cost 2 to 3 times as much if they are made in the US, but maybe if the CEO’s of these companies didn’t get multi-million dollar bonuses, private corporate jets, etc. then maybe the products could be competitive in price. The “But it will cost 2 to 3 times as much” excuse sounds exactly like “We need illegals cause they will do job no one here will do” excuse.

  27. Trai_Dep says:

    The myth that Chinese manufacturing knocks off multiples off the retail price is just that. There’ve been several studies and articles in academic/business journals that note that – once you account for increased monitoring, coordination, shipping and QC costs – Chinese-sourced goods are about 40% cheaper compared to US-sourced ones.

    Sure, that’s a large percentage. But it’s not 10x, 5x, 4x.

    And its generally the lower-end side of the product line.

    Barring – or adapting a prove your products aren’t toxic, substandard, counterfeit or stolen before we allow it in the country – Chinese products won’t be as huge a hit as one might think.

    Some companies (Wal-Mart) would be sad, since they’ve sunk so much infrastructure into exporting US jobs overseas as part of their competitive advantage. Awww, poor Wal-Mart!

    All this doesn’t account for the (significant) spill-over economic benefits of sourcing more work here. Which, again: significant.

  28. Trai_Dep says:

    …And of course, just because a company reduces its costs by $x doesn’t mean that they’ll drop their retail price by the same amount. Au contraire, Wall Street would KILL them if they did. So the impact of using a more trustworthy sourcing model has even LESS impact to Joe & Josephine Consumer’s pocket.

    …And HUGE benefits for most Americans.

  29. Walt3k says:

    One thing I find interesting about (at least) Americans is the enthusiasm which they will pour into the latest scare, craze, etc. Lead paint is dangerous, sure. In the long run it can cause a lot of problems. Any smokers on this forum? Any that smoke in the same space as your child? How about air and such? Spray that around the house? Petroleum-based wax, toxic cleaners, fabric softners, food additives in addictive snacks which make the kids quiet… you get the idea. Many products which (at least) Americans have grown accustomed to thanks to the immediate gratification they bring to our senses are, in the long run, toxic…I think some even more than lead paint. I can’t help but think the products we can buy will change when our focus, a relentless focus, changes. If our quality and health were paramount, then the dollars we spend would initiate the changes we desire. However, I don’t think that is even enough because product packaging info can lie, be insufficient, or even be non-existent. A government populated with people who felt pressured to change that packaging is the only way to change it, I think. I don’t think there is enough competition left in many industries to enable demand/replacement to effect change. I dunno though.. it all sounds so hard. I think I will go have a smoke, eat some Cheese Puffs with a Coke and watch some good reality TV show. Ahhh..much better..

  30. swedub says:

    @Walt3k: I agree. I’m sure companies here in America have created quite a few toxic products in it’s day. It’s not a China issue, it’s a corporate issue. If you skip corners in production to save money you might potentially skip corners in safety.

  31. iKnow says:

    @agent2600: AGENT2600, what do you know about China? or anything in general, how old are you? 14? every comment i see you make about China screams ignorance. I’m really surprised that you haven’t been banned, I mean unless this site is supposed to be some kind of anti China propaganda site.

  32. Anonymous says:

    By the end of 2008, fourth quarter profits for Mattel were down by 46%, 922 Chinese toy exporting companies closed their businesses in Guangdong province (dubbed as the “toy capital” of the world), and India (who imports 60% of its toys from China) has imposed a six month ban on importing Chinese-made toys.

    Barbie turns 50 this year (2009), and was still being featured in the 2009 Toy Fair in New York City, despite the drop in Barbie’s popularity and the competition (such as the popular MGA Bratz dolls). Disney toys, including the Snow White Mattel doll, will be on the toy shelves this fall with the release of the DVD version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The cost of manufacturing for Mattel is likely to remain high, and as such, combined with regulatory (read “safety”) pressures, can tempt a company to take short cuts. But rather than take short cuts, Mattel should apply the principles that they were founded on:

    * The hard work of Eliott Handler in his garage shop;
    * The marketing genius of Ruth Handler in promoting their products on the Mickey Mouse Club; and,
    * The intent to provide value to those at play with their products (e.g., building the self esteem of young girls).

    The toys manufactured by Mattel are wonderful, when one knows that human rights violations have ceased, and the safety of our children has been put above the greed of big business. It is certainly my hope that Mattel can return to the hard work, innovations, marketing genius, and values that made them a company that epitomized the American dream for children of immigrants (such as Ruth and Elliot Handler).