CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. consumers were unaware for days that retailers were pulling Elmo, Big Bird and other Mattel Inc. toys from shelves last week because of a potential lead-paint hazard.
Still, the regulator in charge of toy recalls said Thursday that the withdrawal was accomplished more quickly than usual
Mattel said Wednesday it was recalling 1.5 million Chinese-made toys worldwide because their paint might contain too much lead. Of those, 967,000 were recalled in the United States.
It was not immediately clear how many of the toys were already in children’s hands.
“In a case such as this one -- where lead paint was the hazard -- from the time that the agency is notified to the time the consumer was notified of the damages was within days,” Julie Vallese, public affairs director for the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) said.
“The is a recall that happened very quickly,” she said.
The later notice to consumers highlights how regulations can slow down the process of getting potentially dangerous toys out of the hands of children. According to the CPSC, the Mattel recall of its Fisher-Price toys was one of the faster one.
Vallese declined to say when the agency was first notified about the potential toy hazard that extended to popular preschool characters like Elmo and Big Bird as well as dozens of other items, all manufactured in China.
A Mattel spokesperson did not say when retailers or the CPSC were first notified.
A spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, said it was told about the recall on Friday, five days before the recall was formally announced.
A spokeswoman for Toys R Us said it was notified about the pending recall several days ago.
“They know if they are suspicious, they are to give us notice,” Kathleen Waugh of Toys R Us, said of the retailers guidelines for manufacturers.
Both retailers pulled the toys from their shelves and flagged their cash registers so the toys would not be sold if a consumer tried to buy one.
But consumers who bought the toys as early as May, when they first went on sale, did not know about the potential danger until Wednesday, when the recall was announced.
“We have to work with the CPSC under guidelines on how we coordinate a recall to best serve consumers,” Mattel spokeswoman Jules Andres said.
CPSC’s Vallese said several things must be in place before a recall is announced, including a toll-free line for consumers to call, and assurances that toys are being pulled from shelves as well as a way for consumers to know if they have the product and a means to return the products.
Manufacturers are required to call the CPSC before notifying retailers, Vallese said. The agency then determines the parameters of the recall.
Because Mattel came to the CPSC and said that the toys needed to be recalled, instead of saying only they might need to be recalled, the recall was a “fast-track” recall, Vallese said.
Still, CPSC regulations meant that consumers did not know about the recall for days.
“The U.S. marketplace is a large marketplace, and we need to have confidence that the majority of retailers, whether they are a large retailer or a small retailer, is getting the word and removing the products from store shelves before the recall is announced,” she said.
Reporting by Brad Dorfman, editing by Jeffrey Benkoe