Withdrawal symptoms

22 August 2007
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23 August 2007 | Paul Snell

Following several recalls in the past month of products made in China, Paul Snell asks how often these problems occur and what buyers can do to ensure quality goods

There has long been a stigma about the quality of goods produced in some foreign climes. But in recent weeks there have been a number of high-profile problems with products from China.

In June, US toy firm RC2 voluntarily recalled 1.5 million Thomas the Tank Engine toys, which may have been finished with toxic lead paint. And this month another US toy company, Mattel, has made two product recalls (See news, page 9) for the same reason.

And it isn't just toy makers that have been affected.

Toiletry manufacturer Gilchrist & Soames this month recalled toothpaste placed in hotels around the world.

It followed tests that confirmed some samples of the product made by its Chinese suppliers contained the potentially dangerous chemical Diethylene Glycol.

But how common is this kind of problem?

In 2006 the EU imported ?191 billion (£130 billion) of goods from China. EU figures report 280 notifications of dangerous products from the country during the first six months of 2007, lower than the same period in 2006.

The EU consumer commissioner visited China last month to discuss concerns. The Chinese government has agreed to improve its enforcement of quality checks.

So are recent problems being blown out of proportion? Karl Alomar, senior partner at China Export Finance, thinks so. "The volume of recent product recalls is more a reflection of China's dominance in manufacturing exports rather than any serious indictment on its standards of safety.

"It's important to ensure China's export safety remains closely monitored, but equally important to ensure these latest scares don't become a pretext for introducing punitive trade restrictions." The British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA) agrees: "China-supplied toys can be firstclass in terms of quality and safety. Its problems should be kept in perspective."

Stephen Boobyer, commercial director at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), adds: "The rigour of product checks in China has increased. Perhaps this proves the system is working."

The BTHA blames purchasers who import toys without carrying out risk assessments and quality checks, and suppliers who lack detailed knowledge of safety regulations.

"It is the responsibility of the buyer to ensure the quality of the goods and that ethical practices are carried out," Alomar insists. Recalling products is costly and damaging. RC2's recall cost it $4 million (£2 million), double the amount anticipated. So what can buyers do?

Nicki Dennis, head of market development at BSI British Standards, says having a close relationship with vulnerable suppliers to help them meet standards is vital.

Quality teams should be independent of procurement and form a key part of company CSR policy, says Raees Lakhani, client services director at consultancy Resources Global Professionals. "It all boils down to the planning stage, putting in the time and resources at the outset."

The BRC has developed safety and operations standards to help Chinese suppliers meet legal requirements. It hopes to get 6,000 suppliers approved in the next few years.


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