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On Hill, Toy Firm Officials Apologize and Promise Changes

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Toy industry officials were contrite yesterday in their first appearance before Congress following the recent recall of millions of toys because of lead paint and other hazards.

"On behalf of Mattel, I apologize sincerely to each and every parent. I can't change the past, but I can change the way we do things," said Robert A. Eckert, Mattel's chief executive, referring to Mattel's recall of 21 million toys, including Barbie play sets and Batman action figures.

The testimony came as Congress considers improving product safety oversight by increasing funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission and lifting the cap on penalties for companies that wait too long to report problems with products.

Seeking to calm consumer fears, toy retailers and manufacturers have already expanded safety inspections. Mattel has begun testing batches of paint and finished products before they are shipped to stores, Eckert testified. Gerald Storch, chief executive of Toys R Us, said his company had increased testing for a variety of hazards and made it easier for consumers to return recalled toys, even if they didn't buy them at Toys R Us.

The toy executives said they supported increased funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which critics contend has been hobbled by budget cuts, the absence of a permanent chairman and weak enforcement powers.

Commissioner Thomas Moore testified that over the past three years, the agency has shrunk by 15 percent. The CPSC employs only one full-time toy tester, and its testing facilities in Gaithersburg are so woefully out of date that acting chairman Nancy Nord said yesterday that some of the buildings are "not up to code."

While acknowledging the CPSC's funding problems, lawmakers nevertheless grilled Nord about the agency's response to lead paint on toys and to lead in children's metal jewelry.

Lead in jewelry has been linked to the death of one child and prompted the largest recall in the agency's history in 2004.

Nord said the agency was in the process of adopting tougher regulations on lead in jewelry -- a response that didn't satisfy Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). Durbin chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government, which oversees the CPSC's budget.

"It's not just a matter of providing more money to the agency, more staff at the agency, more and better laboratories and buildings," Durbin said. "There has to be an aggressive attitude at the agency about protecting families and consumers. . . . I didn't find it in many of her responses."

The toy industry received a warmer reception, having diffused criticism this week by saying it wanted the government to require toymakers to have their products' safety tested by independent labs.

"You're facing this honestly, and . . . I commend you for doing that," Durbin told the toy executives.

The industry, however, still faces the challenge of reassuring consumers in time for the holiday shopping season.

The increased testing by retailers and manufacturers will likely lead to more recalls, countering fears -- or reinforcing them.

"Each recall that occurs this year is one day closer to Christmas," said Gerrick Johnson, an analyst for BMO Capital Markets.

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