Acknowledging that "we are by no means perfect," Mattel Inc. CEO Robert Eckert said Wednesday the company could have done a better job overseeing subcontractors in China that produced more than 21 million recalled toys.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission embraced Democrats' calls for more money after years of cutbacks to the beleaguered agency. "This situation cannot continue," said Nancy Nord, the CPSC's acting chief.
Testimony to Congress on Wednesday by both federal regulators and toy manufacturers detailed loose Chinese standards and spotty U.S. enforcement that have contributed to a spate of recalls of Chinese-made toys, food and other products as health threats.
Seeking to tamp down public outrage, Eckert told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that the company would now test the safety of Chinese-made products with its own laboratories or with laboratories certified by the company.
He disputed reports that public warnings about the dangerous products were delayed because of disagreements with federal regulators or that Mattel might be motivated by saving money at the expense of safety when it chose to do business in China.
"I, like you, am deeply disturbed and disappointed by recent events. We were let down, and so we let you down," Eckert said. "But we have tackled difficult issues before and demonstrated an ability to make change for the better."
In recent weeks, Mattel has recalled millions of Chinese-made toys, including popular Barbie, Polly Pocket and "Cars" movie items, because of concerns about lead paint and tiny magnets that could be swallowed.
Under federal rules, manufacturers with a few exceptions must report all claims of potentially hazardous product defects within 24 hours. Mattel reportedly took months to gather information and privately investigate problems after becoming aware of them.
On Wednesday, Eckert said Mattel has been working with the CPSC to "develop a new set of reporting protocols" but denied any suggestions of a feud.
The hearing comes as manufacturers and retailers scramble to restore public confidence in the safety of toys made in the United States, particularly those made in China, as the Christmas holiday season approaches.
In recent days, the Toy Industry Association has expressed support for congressional efforts to impose mandatory safety-testing standards. Companies such as Walt Disney Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have announced their own measures, with toy maker Step2 Co. saying Wednesday it intends to expand its labeling next week to make sure consumers know a product's foreign origins.
The CPSC, too, has come under fire. Its staff has steadily dropped from almost 800 employees in 1974 to an all-time low of about 400 employees now.
Displaying a photo of a CPSC laboratory strewn with boxes and piles of uninspected toys, Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin called U.S. enforcement practices unacceptable and said he would work to boost funding to roughly $70 million.
"After discovering that a toy I purchased for my grandson was recalled in May, I asked myself the same question parents across the country are asking today - who is in charge?" Durbin said. "The answer is that there is one employee at the Consumer Product Safety Commission responsible for testing toys and ensuring toy safety throughout the country."
Nord and CPSC commissioner Thomas Moore said the extra money would be helpful as the agency faces record imports from China.
"It has taken years for the commission to get to its present position and it will take years to correct," Moore said.
Sen. Sam Brownback, the top Republican on the panel, agreed that the CPSC needed to provide better oversight. But he leveled his harshest criticism at China's safety standards.
"'Made in China' has now become a warning label," Brownback said. "We're seeing this in the charts and we're seeing it in the products and it's got to stop."
Separately, China's product safety chief Li Changjiang offered assurances that toys made in China would be "safer, better and more appealing." Li's remarks at a food safety conference in Beijing seemed intended to reassure consumers in the United States and elsewhere.
China has become a center for the world's toy-making industry, exporting $7.5 billion worth of toys last year and accounting for nearly 87 percent of the toys imported by the United States, according to China's Commerce Ministry.
"Before Christmas, we will certainly provide children safer, better and more appealing toys. They will certainly like them," Li told reporters.
On Tuesday, China signed an agreement to prohibit the use of lead paint on toys exported to the United States.
"We know consumers are asking how they can be sure the toys they buy for their families are safe," Jerry Storch, chairman of Toys "R" Us Inc., told the Senate panel. He said the company would announce new measures this week to directly notify consumers of recalls with an e-mail notification system as well as bilingual notices.
"We support legislation shortening the time frames during the period between identification of a problem and the eventual recall of that product," he said. "We are troubled by the possibility that we could be continuing to sell toys that someone knows may have a problem, while we remain unaware until we receive word that a recall is coming."
Mattel is not the only company that has had to recall products made in China for a variety of reasons.
In June, toy maker RC2 Corp. voluntarily recalled 1.5 million wooden railroad toys and set parts from its Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway product line because of lead paint. And in July, Hasbro Inc. recalled Chinese-made Easy Bake ovens on reports of second- and third-degree burns to children.