Wednesday, October 6, 2010

China's reports on lead-free toys are unreliable: Health Canada

Canadian importers and retailers shouldn't be relying on test reports from China showing their cheap metallic jewelry is lead-free because the tests are sometimes bogus, according to internal Health Canada correspondence.

The department's product safety officers are also wary of test samples of products provided directly from Canadian suppliers for fear that they'll cherry-pick "the best made, best manufactured, best quality controlled units that the company has ever produced" to pass government product safety tests.

The internal correspondence involving officials in Health Canada's product safety branch, released to Postmedia News under access to information legislation, were written after a high-profile government trip to China to promote co-operation on consumer product safety.

Industry Minister Tony Clement, in the wake of a series of high-profile recalls of Chinese-made toys and jewelry, made the inaugural trip in November 2007 when he was health minister to sign a memorandum of understanding with his Chinese counterpart. One of the areas flagged was lead and children's jewelry.

Leona Aglukkaq, the current health minister, followed up with her own trip to China last month to sign a letter of intent to reaffirm this commitment to co-operate on product safety.

During this time, product safety staff expressed their own reservations about test reports from China, the records show.

"It has been my experience that test reports from China are not always reliable, and should not be used for reassurance until (Health Canada's) Product Safety Laboratory has had a chance to verify them. There have been instances where (the lab) has found high lead levels in products shown in Chinese reports to be low in lead," a product safety specialist wrote to colleagues in September 2008.

Since that time, 42 different children's jewelry items, mostly made in China, have been recalled in Canada for containing lead in excess of the 0.06 per cent — a strict limit put in place five years ago so overseas manufacturers would stop using toxic raw materials to make children's jewelry items.

This year alone, 20 items that slipped through the various company quality-assurance systems have been recalled after Health Canada tests showed the jewelry pieces were made of almost pure lead.

Three of these items, including a necklace made of 92 per cent lead, were distributed to discount stores by Canasia Toys & Gifts Inc., also known as CTG Brands of Vaughan, Ont. Wilson Fung, CTG's merchandising manager, said the company got burned by inaccurate test reports from China.

"Even sometimes when we got the lab test reports from them, when Health Canada comes to us, but still Health Canada tests are different," said Fung.

Separately, Health Canada officials have also ruled out the possibility of Canadian suppliers or retailers providing samples to be tested for compliance with various toy regulations. The issue arose in December 2008, when a Canadian discount retailer raised concerns that Health Canada was pushing for a recall of a plush toy after carrying out tests on three random samples.

"They have asked if it was possible that they send 25 more sample elements and have them tested at our lab," an official wrote to colleagues in the product safety branch.

The reaction to the request was unequivocal. "If we allow suppliers to send in 'followup samples' for testing, I assure you that we will receive 25 of the best made, best manufactured, best quality controlled units that the company has ever produced. Clearly, that would not be indicative of the product normally available to the consumers," a product safety officer wrote in response.


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