Friday, June 4, 2010

McDonald’ Shrek Recall: More Questions than Answers

By Dr. Hari Bapuji.

McDonald’s has recalled 12 million Shrek-themed glasses today because the designs on them contain cadmium. In no time, questions have been raised in the digital world about where they were made. While this might be an important question to ask, what concerns me is the number of questions that are left unaddressed in this recall.

In any recall these days, it is common to highlight the country of manufacture (mostly China) and point fingers at that country. Let us first clear that before moving to other important questions. These glasses were made for McDonald’s by Arc International, a French private company that is a leading producer of glassware. These were manufactured in the U.S., not simply imported from China. Arc has manufacturing facilities at Millville, NJ. Some argued that the paint may have come from China, but we can wait to hear more on that from Arc before any judgment is passed.

What surprises most, however, is the lack of clear information in this recall. Or rather, conflicting information being provided by the recall notice and McDonald’s. A recall has been announced by McDonald’s “in cooperation” with the CPSC. So, one could fairly assume that there exists some potential harm. But, McDonald’s believes “the Shrek glassware is safe for consumer use.” Further, McDonald’s asserts that the glasses are “in compliance with all applicable federal and state requirements at the time of manufacture and distribution” – that time was just last month. So, the question is: are the glasses safe or not?

The CPSC also does not appear to give any better information. A spokesman for the agency does not specify the amounts of cadmium, but only that they were slightly above the protective level currently being developed by the agency, but far less than the children’s metal jewelry that CPSC recalled earlier. That’s all right, but what are the limits and what is the amount of cadmium present in these glasses? In other words, how safe are these glasses? To add further to the confusion, Arc International says that it stands behind all its products and see the recall as an internal decision by McDonald’s.

That McDonald’s has recalled 12 million units (a very large number) should not come as a surprise because they generally put into circulation a lot of toys and such products, perhaps much more than any leading toy company. But, McDonald’s has often been praised by analysts for escaping the earlier lead metal problem when a number of large companies issued recalls. Surprisingly, what they escaped in China seems to have caught them in the U.S. I wonder what organizational systems and processes (or lack of them) have caused this. Was it that they were less careful in the U.S. than they were in China?

It is commonly believed that lead, cadmium and such heavy metals are not easily available in the US and certainly not present in the paint. But this recall and another recall for excess lead earlier this year raises questions on this notion that heavy metals in products are present only in those made in China and other such developing countries.

Recently, The CPSC chairman asked the Asian manufacturers to make sure that cadmium and other heavy metals are not substituted for lead. Yes, cadmium seems to have become the new lead and it should be dealt with in the same manner in which lead was dealt with a couple of years ago. But, in the process, it is important that clear information be given to consumers and other stakeholders so that the unnecessary frenzy does not accompany recalls. It is only in the absence of such frenzy that the reasons for recalls and the role of companies can be discussed in a productive manner so as to improve consumer product safety.

* Dr. Hari Bapuji is an Assistant Professor at the Asper School of Business, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Dr. Bapuji’s recent research on Toy Recalls received worldwide media attention and has been published in several prominent outlets.

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