Presidential contenders step up talk on toys

And Nicholas Casey

Democratic presidential candidates are stepping up their attacks on Chinese manufacturers of dangerous toys, with Sen. Barack Obama vowing to ban all Chinese toys unless government inspectors there and in the U.S. can ensure their safety.

In the wake of a series of recalls involving imports of toys and other children's products for excessive lead levels or dangerous parts, most of the Democratic candidates have voiced get-tough positions regarding toys from China. They have taken aim at the Bush administration for allowing the toys to be sold in the U.S. and at Beijing for failing to do more to ensure products meet safety standards.

Given that China supplies about 85 percent of the toys in U.S. markets, the ban Obama advocates would be unlikely. Indeed, an adviser to the Illinois senator said the call for an outright ban was taken somewhat out of context and Obama wasn't advocating a ban so much as he was pushing for a far better inspection regime. But the statement isn't new: During a Dec. 4 radio debate in Iowa, Obama also called for such a ban, echoing the rhetoric of Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, another presidential candidate.

They aren't alone. To one degree or another, practically every Democratic candidate has called for limits, while Republican candidates have said little on the issue. Sen. Christopher Dodd and former Sen. John Edwards vowed to boycott purchases of Chinese-made toys this holiday season. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York drew calls of slander from the Chinese government when on "Black Friday," the shopping frenzy after Thanksgiving, she said the problem was widespread and troubling.

"As the holiday shopping season begins," Clinton said in late November, "our government should be taking immediate, decisive steps to ensure that the toys we are importing from China and other countries are safe."

She said the Chinese government itself has estimated that 20 percent of its toy exports may be tainted.

Congress just increased the budget for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but legislation to overhaul the agency has been stalled in the Senate, where a bipartisan agreement has been elusive. In recent years, the Bush administration has slashed the budget and staff of the CPSC, leaving roughly 400 people &

half the number it had at inception in 1973. Testing labs are antiquated, and the CPSC has about 100 field investigators to monitor more than 300 ports, as well as investigate incidents and injuries, according to the agency. None are stationed at any port full time. Manufacturers and consumers alike complain of delays in reporting and investigating defective and unsafe products.

The problem of tainted Chinese toys evokes a visceral response among Democratic voters, who appear to blame a lax U.S. inspection regime as much as they do Beijing. This was clear in an economic-roundtable discussion Obama held this week, after a young mother, one of a half-dozen New Hampshire residents, voiced fear about toys for this Christmas season.

"What I would do right now is I would stop all imports of these toys from China," Obama said. "We have just a handful of people who are inspecting all the toys that are flooding into the country."

Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, agrees that increased inspection at U.S. ports is needed, and the trade group also supports increased funding for the CPSC. But he said it is the industry's "responsibility to ensure toy safety. The CPSC is a backup and an enforcement mechanism."

On the other hand, he said, a ban on Chinese toys could prove a disaster for the industry. Not only would it be "impossible to replace that productive capacity in any short period of time," but also an outright ban would be "utterly unjustified," he said. Of the roughly three billion toys imported from China this year, only a relatively small number were subject to a recall. Keithley also pointed to the fact that many of recalls over the summer were the result of design flaws from American companies, not the fault of Chinese suppliers.

Obama offers a further step. He said he favors basing a U.S. inspection regime in China, which he said is similar to what the Japanese government does for food exports from there. "They basically say to China, 'You cannot [send us your] food unless you meet our safety inspectors.' We don't do that," Obama said.

M.P. McQueen contributed to this article.

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