Image: Eban and Zoe Schletter
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
"This is so exactly what the villain in a children's movie would do," Eban Schletter says of the "bonus gifts" they had to send back over lead concerns.
updated 10/2/2007 4:38:13 PM ET 2007-10-02T20:38:13

The first recall was bad enough: A million-plus "Thomas & Friends" toys pulled because of lead paint. The second was surreal: The maker of the smiley-faced trains sent customers "bonus gifts" so they'd stay loyal — and now some of those toys have been recalled, too.

Even if you're not 3-year-old Zoe McGaha-Schletter, it's yet another mind-bending episode in a cascade of recalls that already had parents fretting what toys were safe for their kids.

"This is so exactly what the villain in a children's movie would do," said Zoe's father, Eban Schletter. "It's just ridiculous."

The year of the recall rolled on last week when the maker of popular Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway toys issued its second lead paint warning since June. Among the 200,000 or so items on the new list were about 2,000 tainted train cars that RC2 Corp. sent to customers who turned in recalled items over the summer.

The double recall dredges up issues of global supply chain management and China's role as factory to the world. It also shows how a company that says it's doing everything it can to ensure quality cannot guarantee that its products are lead free.

For Zoe, the consequences are simple: no more Thomas toys.

Her dad is tossing about $500 worth of trains, tracks and trestles, mostly from a spread he erected on a table at his Hollywood recording studio, where backup singers doing gigs for TV shows including "SpongeBob SquarePants" have plopped their kids as they worked.

Image: "Toad"
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP file
RC2 Corp. sent the Schletters "Toad" as a replacement gift. The company later recalled it.
While just 5 percent of Thomas toys have tested as exceeding the federal limit for lead paint (0.06 percent lead content in a product's paint), Schletter is severing all ties. He wants RC2 Corp. to do the same with China.

"It just blows my mind that no one even seems to consider the possibility of not doing business the way they do it," he said.

In June, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that Illinois-based RC2 was voluntarily recalling about 1.5 million items in what would become the first of several major roundups involving lead paint on toys made in China. Children who ingest even small amounts of lead can suffer brain damage; large doses can kill.

By mid-September, the company had recovered about 1 million items, sending bonus gifts to customers who returned a product.

The goodwill gesture flopped when further testing showed that lead in the paint covering about 2,000 "Toad" train cars in the bonus shipment was up to four times higher than acceptable levels. The company had sent the stick-of-butter-sized items as part of 146,000 gifts it distributed to customers such as Schletter. Last week, RC2 recalled the affected Toads, along with about 200,000 other Thomas items.

The company — which ranks in the top 10 of U.S. toy makers with 2006 sales volume of about $500 million — has dropped its supplier, Hansheng Wood Products, which made the Toad pieces as well as the items in the first recall.

In a letter addressed to "Dear Valued Thomas and Friends Customer," company executives recognized the anguish the second recall would cause.

"We are deeply apologetic for and embarrassed by this turn of events, and remain determined to make it up to you and restore your confidence," wrote RC2 CEO Curt Stoelting and President Pete Henseler.

It won't be easy — already parents are venting on blogs.

Finding another manufacturer to keep the trains running to market on time also will be hard.

It takes time for a new factory to secure materials, set up its shop floor and then refine its process to meet quality expectations that RC2 says it will ratchet up even more.

"In the short term, they would be having a huge difficulty," said Hari Bapuji, a professor of international business at Canada's University of Manitoba who has studied recalls in the U.S. dating back 20 years. He found that unlike the Thomas recalls, the majority can be blamed on poor design, rather than shoddy manufacturing.

Schletter said he felt for RC2's predicament, but not enough to stay loyal. "You're talking about kids' lives," he said.

The company is offering a replacement Toad and another gift to anyone responding to the latest recall. Schletter said he'll take a pass.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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