Toy safety still a crapshoot

Canadian rules focus more on recalls than on keeping unsafe goods off shelves.

The last thought parents should have while holiday shopping is, “Will this toy hurt my child?” But this year, once again, those dark doubts are bound to creep in whenever shoppers read “Made in China” on packaging and product labels. Such worries have clouded the toy industry since 2007, when lead was found in the brightly coloured paint on an assortment of toys manufactured in China, at the same time as other toy lines with small magnets were identified as a choking hazard. Mattel and other companies yanked millions of products from store shelves, earning 2007 the moniker the Year of the Recall.

Since then, while concerns around product safety have quieted, nothing has changed to prevent dangerous toys or other products from landing in Canadian retailers’ aisles. True, the recalls in 2007 were a catalyst for the Canadian government and industry to address product safety, but change is coming slowly. Not only that, but while new rules in the U.S. requiring manufacturers to do pre-market toy-safety testing are making a difference there, in Canada most of the proposed measures focus on what occurs after someone gets hurt. All the while, recalls continue: Health Canada has issued 252 recalls so far this year, many more than the 90 announced in 2007, and according to research by Debi Andrus, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, recalls of products made in China nearly doubled in 2008. “We continue to export our natural resources to China,” says Andrus, “and import some products that are unsafe.”

Andrus, who specializes in product development, wants to answer a seemingly straightforward question: why are there unsafe products in Canada? The question has proved baffling, because product recalls have not been tracked or studied in such a way that meaningful public statistics exist. No one knows how many recalls can be traced back directly to a Chinese factory cuting corners, for instance, or to design flaws that cause problems with offshore manufacturers. The result is that little is being done to find ways to make products more safely in the first place.

Instead, government agencies have moved to repair consumer trust by improving how products are recalled. In the months following the recalls in 2007, Health Canada consolidated a fragmented reporting system onto (a website that confusingly also houses public awareness information on everything from bullying and identity theft to wildfires). Meanwhile, the Conservative government launched an action plan that culminated in a bill, C-6, that was tabled in January and is now winding its way through Parliament. The legislation’s aim is to “strengthen and modernize” product-safety laws, with new obligations for suppliers to report incidents and retain documents for tracing products, and a bigger stick for Health Canada to enforce compliance, including increased fines.

Andrus remains troubled by a lack of transparency on these issues. Over the past two years, she has tried to get as clear a picture as she can, poring over patchy data from multiple sources that have varying reporting standards and degrees of detail. In her research, Andrus found that between 2002 and 2007, recalls of Canadian-made products decreased, while those from China steadily increased. In 2007, nearly 40% of Canadian recalls were of products made in China. No estimates are available in Canada for the cost of recalls, but the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission pegs it at about US$700 billion annually. Part of the challenge is determining where products, or their component parts, originate. As companies seek to speed up the introduction of new products while lowering costs, manufacturers wind up making more products with parts from multiple countries. For copanies, it has made their products more susceptible to design flaws; for consumer safety agencies, it makes it harder to track down the source of what triggers a recall.

Nevertheless, other countries have substantially improved how they report and track recalls. The U.S., the European Union and Australia each have detailed websites of recalls in their regions, and publish annual reports. Canada, however, does not. “Canadians should have transparency in terms of a summary report about what the agencies have found, and what they’re doing to help correct it,” says Andrus.

Bill C-6 may begin to address some problems around tracking unsafe products. According to Doug Geralde, the Canadian Standards Association’s director of regulator relations, one intent of the legislation is to give federal agencies greater oversight. “We don’t really want 13 jurisdictions collecting stats and watching for trends. We want to get it at as high a level as possible,” says Geralde. “Ultimately, what we want is an international network where recalls in Australia are also shared in Canada, the U.S. or the EU.”

The seeds of such a network may soon be sprouting. On Nov. 3, GS1 Canada, the non-profit industry group that manages bar codes, was due to unveil a new web-based service to improve how harmful products are traced and remove from shelves, and 25 countries are evaluating the Canadian initiative as a global platform. The new system, which is voluntary, is meant to simplify how manufacturers and distributors communicate recalls with retailers, by standardizing the details of recall notices. The goal is to speed up recalls, to ensure no unsafe products are sold — sales will be blocked when the bar code is scanned — and to let companies limit recalls to only those shipments actually affected.

The service, which is being promoted by four industry associations representing 65,000 companies, will first apply to food products, where the urgency is highest — allergy alerts and food recalls have tripled between 2004 and 2009 to 20.7 per month. In early 2010, theservice is set to expand to toys and baby products and, eventually, pharmaceutical products. For anxious consumers, it can’t happen soon enough.