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]