Made in China - but Is It Safe?

Made in China - but Is It Safe?

Made in China - But is it Safe?

08/29/2007 06:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

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First it was poison in dog food and toothpaste, and then defective tires and toys with lead paint. Should products from China be avoided? Can Chinese manufacturers be trusted?

These events have created a frenzy of responses from politicians and instant talk show experts suggesting everything from banning China imports altogether to having the government inspect every toy entering the country. From my own experience in developing dozens of products and working with all sorts of factories in China, these comments miss the point and some are demagoguery.

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Factories in China range from some of the most modern in the world to small ram shackled facilities. It’s no different from other developing countries except that China has the broadest and most comprehensive manufacturing infrastructure in the world. Generalizing that products from China are good or bad, safe or dangerous means nothing. To lay blame on China alone for the poor quality of its exported products is simplistic and misleading. In fact, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Nearly every product being sold in the United States that comes from China has a U.S. partner or customer. Few Chinese manufacturers have the ability or interest to market and distribute their own products. These U.S. customers play the major role throughout the products’ lifecycle. They specify the design and requirements for the product, and select, manage and oversee the development with their Chinese partners.

Then they import, inspect and distribute the products under their brand names. These companies include Apple, Sony, Mattel, GE, HP, Palm, and virtually every consumer company you can think of. When a defective product reaches the market, it’s usually because the U.S. company let it happen, failing to perform adequate inspection and testing or not doing a sufficient job selecting and managing their suppliers.

Most reputable U.S. companies have testing labs and quality control organizations to ensure that only good product reaches their customers. While they don’t inspect each and every product, they do statistical sampling to make certain that only good merchandise passes.

But sometimes shortcuts are taken, allowing the Chinese companies to ship products directly to their end customers. That lowers costs and gets the products to us sooner. Often it’s done once the Chinese manufacturer has proven its reliability.

Of course, the Chinese also bear some responsibility. Once production begins, some unethical manufacturers substitute lower cost ingredients, materials or finishes to improve their profit. That’s no different than an occasional homebuilder here using substandard building materials that jeopardize the homeowners’ health and safety.

Often it’s more than greed. It’s the pressure to maintain profits while simultaneously being pushed to lower prices. WalMart and Dell, for example, are well known for relentlessly pressuring their manufacturers to constantly reduce costs, and many other companies emulate them. Dell requires the suppliers of some products to provide a 1.8 percent cost reduction every month! Doing that brings kudos from stock analysts and the stock market. I suspect the analysts and company executives rarely consider these unintended consequences.

Some Chinese manufacturers are just plain greedy, driven by profits at the expense of safety, and need to be exposed and driven out of business by better regulation from the Chinese government. They’re not only endangering us but their own citizens even more.

There are two other issues also at work here. It’s becoming easier for small U.S. companies and even individuals to import Chinese-made products and sell them here. Many don’t have the knowledge or the resources to test and inspect, and they just sell what they get, acting as middlemen.

Lastly companies are frantically turning out new models as often as every 3 months. That means there’s little time to adequately test and qualify new products, further lowering quality.

What can the consumer do about this? Of course, we can boycott all products made in China. This would pressure the Chinese companies and the Chinese government to correct their deficiencies. However, it would also eliminate the vast majority of all those good and safe products currently being manufactured and designed in China and would penalize the Chinese companies that make them and the American companies that spend the time and money to ensure that their products are safe.

Then how do consumers avoid buying unsafe products? Stick with a brandname that has a strong company behind it. Don’t look for the cheapest products, look for quality instead. While it wouldn’t have prevented buying Mattel products that were recently recalled, it improves the odds.

I think most of us would be willing to pay a little more if it meant the product was better tested and came from a better factory. Business’ obsession with squeezing the last penny out of every product has gotten out of hand, and is one of the biggest causes of defects.

This post was original published in the San Diego Daily Transcript.