BEIJING (Reuters) - The world's largest toy maker, Mattel Inc, apologized on Friday for damaging China's reputation after recent massive recalls of its Chinese-made toys, admitting it targeted some goods that were actually up to scratch.
Mattel has come under scrutiny following the recall of about 21 million of the toys in a span of five weeks, many because of excessive levels of lead paint.
"Our reputation has been damaged lately by these recalls," Thomas Debrowski, Mattel's executive vice president of worldwide operations, told China's quality watchdog chief, Li Changjiang, in the Chinese capital.
"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 he realized the damage that had been done to the reputation of Chinese goods, adding the company was committed to manufacturing in China and was also investing $30 million in a Barbie store in Shanghai.
"But it's important for everyone to understand that the vast majority of those products that we recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel's design, not through a manufacturing flaw in Chinese manufacturers."
The company added in a statement that too many toys had been recalled, although it said that was because it puts safety first.
"Mattel is committed to applying the highest standards of safety for its products. Consistent with this, Mattel's lead-related recalls were overly inclusive, including toys that may not have had lead in paint in excess of U.S. standards," it said.
"The follow-up inspections also confirmed that part of the recalled toys complied with the U.S. standards," it added.
Debrowski, who sat stony-faced throughout the meeting with Li, did not talk afterwards to reporters, whom the quality regulator had invited to witness most of the meeting, unusual for a normally secretive Chinese government agency.
Li told Debrowski of his displeasure at the admission that perhaps too many toys had been targeted.
"You cannot recall 10,000 products just because one is substandard. This is unacceptable," he said.
But Li also struck a conciliatory tone with the company, which directly and indirectly employs thousands of Chinese.
"I appreciate your objective and responsible attitude towards the recalls and your sincere attitude towards our future cooperation," Li said.
The official Xinhua news agency cited Li as saying that police had detained four Chinese nationals accused of having supplied one of Mattel's contract manufacturers, the Lida Toy Company, with the substandard paint behind the first recall in August.
Lida boss Zhang Shuhong, a Hong Kong businessman in his 50s, killed himself after the recall.
"The four suspects can expect criminal sentences," Xinhua quoted Li as telling Debrowski.
Before the Mattel recalls, a spate of incidents involving unsafe Chinese products ranging from toys and seafood to toothpaste that entered both EU and U.S. markets prompted calls on both sides of the Atlantic for a ban on products "made in China".
Mattel CEO Robert Eckert this week defended his company's toy safety record as two skeptical Democratic lawmakers accused him of stonewalling a congressional probe into production practices in China.
Additional reporting by Jason Subler