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Mattel Apologizes to China Over Recalls

NEW YORK (Associated Press) - U.S.-based toy giant Mattel Inc. issued an extraordinary apology to China on Friday over the recall of Chinese-made toys, taking the blame for design flaws and saying it had recalled more lead-tainted toys than justified.

The gesture by Thomas A. Debrowski, Mattel's executive vice president for worldwide operations, came in a meeting with Chinese product safety chief Li Changjiang, at which Li upbraided the company for maintaining weak safety controls.

"Our reputation has been damaged lately by these recalls," Debrowski told Li in a meeting at Li's office at which reporters were allowed to be present.

"And Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologizes personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys," Debrowski said.

The carefully worded apology, delivered with company lawyers present, underscores China's central role in Mattel's business. The world's largest toy maker has been in China for 25 years and about 65 percent of its products are made in China.

The fence-mending call came ahead of an expected visit to China by Mattel's chairman and chief executive, Robert A. Eckert. Following the massive recall, Eckert told U.S. lawmakers he wanted to see Mattel's mainland inspections first hand.

Mattel ordered three high-profile recalls this summer involving more than 21 million Chinese-made toys, including Barbie doll accessories and toy cars because of concerns about lead paint and tiny magnets that could be swallowed.

The recalls have prompted complaints from China that manufacturers were being blamed for design faults introduced by Mattel.

On Friday, Debrowski acknowledged that "vast majority of those products that were recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel's design, not through a manufacturing flaw in China's manufacturers."

Lead-tainted toys accounted for only a small percentage of all toys recalled, he said, adding that: "We understand and appreciate deeply the issues that this has caused for the reputation of Chinese manufacturers."

In a statement issued by the company, Mattel said its lead-related recalls were "overly inclusive, including toys that may not have had lead in paint in excess of the U.S. standards.

"The follow-up inspections also confirmed that part of the recalled toys complied with the U.S. standards," the statement said, without giving specific figures.

The co-owner of the company that supplied the lead-tainted toys to Mattel, Lee Der Industrial Co. Ltd., committed suicide in August shortly after the recall was announced.

Li reminded Debrowski that "a large part of your annual profit ... comes from your factories in China.

"This shows that our cooperation is in the interests of Mattel, and both parties should value our cooperation. I really hope that Mattel can learn lessons and gain experience from these incidents," Li said, adding that Mattel should "improve their control measures."

Li, the head of China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, also expressed his appreciation for Debrowski's "objective and responsible attitude toward the recent toy recall."

Chinese food, drugs and other products ranging from toothpaste to seafood are under intense scrutiny because they have been found to contain potentially deadly substances.

But China has bristled at what it claims is a campaign to discredit its reputation as an exporter. It accuses foreign media and others of playing up its product safety issues as a form of protectionism.

Beijing insists that the vast majority of its exports are safe but has stepped up inspections of food, drugs and other products in response to the concerns.

Li told reporters after meeting with Debrowski that the government had taken swift action against Lee Der, shutting down its operations and revoking its business license. Four people from the company also face criminal charges, he said, without giving details.

Since this summer's recalls Mattel has announced plans to upgrade its safety system by certifying suppliers and increasing the frequency of random, unannounced inspections. It has fired several manufacturers.

Tests had found that lead levels in paint in recalled toys were as high as 110,000 parts per million, or nearly 200 times higher than the accepted safety ceiling of 600 parts per million.

Mattel's shares fell from the mid-$23 level following the first recall in early August, reaching as low as $20.97 on Sept. 10. They have since rebounded, and rose 63 cents to 2.7 percent to $24.19 in early trading Friday.

China has become a center for the world's toy-making industry, exporting $7.5 billion worth of toys last year.

(Copyright 2007 by the Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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