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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mattel can use own labs for safety tests

By Jennifer C. Kerr
Associated Press

WASHINGTON The nation's biggest toymaker, Mattel Inc., is getting another exemption on federal safety rules even as smaller companies struggle with testing costs imposed after a rash of Mattel toy recalls in 2007.

Under the law passed after the recalls, the makers of children's products must perform independent third-party tests for lead, lead paint and other potential dangers.

Yesterday, however, the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted unanimously to approve Mattel's request to use two more of its own company laboratories for the third-party checks on its toys.

CPSC said Mattel was able to show that its in-house testing would provide equal or greater consumer safety protection than an outside lab.

Mattel's Lisa Marie Bongiovanni said the company has a rigorous testing program, but that it also continues to send some of its products to outside labs for testing.

Consumer advocate Don Mays expressed concern about letting companies do their own testing.

"It's a little bit like the fox guarding the henhouse," said Mays, senior director of product safety at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. "There is the potential for conflict of interest."

The third-party testing required under the 2008 law followed a slew of recalls of Chinese-made toys contaminated by lead, including six Mattel-related recalls.

The six recalls by Mattel and subsidiary Fisher-Price in 2007 involved more than 2 million toys. Last June, Mattel agreed to pay a $2.3 million civil penalty for violating the lead paint ban.

But the legislation also has a provision that allows CPSC to consider requests for so-called "firewalled laboratories" from manufacturers who want to use their own testing facilities for the third-party checks. The firewalled labs are supposed to have safeguards in place to prevent any undue company pressure on an employee to clear a dangerous product.

For Jill Chuckas, owner of a small business called Crafty Baby, the exemption is going to the wrong company.

"It's extremely frustrating and not fair," Chuckas said of Mattel. "Their labs were the ones that didn't catch the problems to begin with."

Mattel says the 2007 recalls were not the result of a failure in a company lab, but rather problems with outside vendors.

While Congress mandated the third-party testing for manufacturers, CPSC has delayed enforcement of the checks until early next year for many products, though plenty of companies are performing the expensive tests anyway because retailers require them.