Originally created 01/08/97

Recall of hair-eating doll draws mixed response



WASHINGTON - The Consumer Product Safety Commission praised Mattel Inc.'s decision to recall a hair-eating Cabbage Patch doll as a model of government-industry cooperation. But a consumer advocate complained that the doll never should have been allowed on the market.

"Our recommendation is that manufacturers be required to test their products better before they introduce them to the market," said Janice Shields of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "This would avoid these types of unnecessary consumer injuries."

In response to about 100 reports of children getting hair and fingers caught in the battery-operated mouths of its Cabbage Patch Kids Snacktime Kids dolls, the El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel said Monday it will pay $40 to parents who want to return the dolls.

Mattel also said it would withdraw the toys from store shelves throughout the United States and end plans to market them in other countries.

"We at Mattel felt, after the various reported consumer incidents, it was just the right thing to do," said Mattel spokesman Sean Fitzgerald.

Mattel's decision came after lengthy discussions with officials with the government's Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"What we ended up with was a good, healthy result," said Ann Brown, the commission chairwoman. "This is the way the market should work for the American consumer."

The commission began testing the dolls soon after receiving complaints over Christmas week. Its investigation found that the doll didn't pose a serious safety hazard.

Nevertheless, the commission argued that the dolls had proven "very upsetting" to many children and parents, and Ms. Brown said the escalating number of incidents helped persuade Mattel to act.

Ms. Brown said stock analysts also were pleased with Mattel's decision to recall the 500,000 dolls it has manufactured.

"It's good from a product liability point of view and for their stock," she said.

Congress established the independent commission in 1972 to keep products that posed a serious safety hazard off the market. Consumer advocates have argued that it lacks clout.

Its annual budget is $42.5 million, and hasn't increased since the 1980s. The agency doesn't begin testing until a complaint is received, and it has only 83 investigators nationwide, according to the private U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission collects data from the public and through the media, and manufacturers are supposed to report any injuries associated with their products.

Ms. Shields, the consumer advocate, said the experience with the hair-eating doll showed the need for tighter regulation.

She said the commission's work would be enhanced if manufacturers were required to file regular reports and if health care workers were required to phone in any product-related injuries.

"There's no regular reporting mechanism either for injury or death, so we think their statistics on injury and death are probably very, very low compared to what the truth is," Shields said.

In 1994, the now-defunct Institute for Injury Reduction released a report alleging that toy manufacturers were willing to run a risk of selling dangerous toys because their chances of getting caught were so small.

"That's really over the top," said Brown, a former consumer advocate. "I think that's a drastic overstatement. We have found, and I think that Mattel is an example of this, companies generally want to do the right thing. They do care about children; they are humane. Those are their customers."

Brown noted that working with Customs agents, the commission stopped about 6 million toys that didn't meet U.S. safety regulations from entering American ports in 1996.