Friday, June 15, 2007

Thomas, Why Hath Thou Forsaken Us?

By Michael Mechanic
Fri, Jun 15, 2007 at 4:55 PM

If you can't trust sweet little Thomas the Tank Engine, well, who can you trust? RC2 Corp., the marketer of this hugely popular line of toy trains for toddlers announced on Wednesday the recall of 1.5 million of its products. Why? Because some of the yellow and red ones -- James always was a bit of a bastard -- contain lead paint, which is neurotoxic, especially to children of the precise age the toys target. D'oh! That's very bad news for parents whose two-year-olds have been sucking on the damn things daily for a year. These trains are everywhere, mind you. Toy stores, bookstores, and daycare centers often have elaborate Thomas train tables set up on the floor. Indeed, it's hard to find a household with a three-year-old these days that doesn't have at least a few around. So this is pretty shocking. It's perhaps most shocking when you consider the brand. This isn't cheap plastic shit direct from China. It's expensive plastic and wood shit made in China. A single Thomas-type train runs about $15, and many parents have spent hundreds putting together a set.

It's well known that Chinese contract manufacturers cut corners, so you might expect the occasional lead paint on some no-name toy from the drugstore. But RC2 has several serious brand reputations to maintain. Besides Thomas, it controls the popular Bob the Builder and The Learning Years brands, among others. In 2006, according to SEC filings, it sold nearly $176 million worth of infant and toddler products, and $229 million in preschool products. The company credits strong sales of its Thomas line, along with a few other toys, for its 20 percent year-to-year growth in the latter category.

And now this recall. On its Web site, RC2 boasts of its high-quality products. "We are not just another toy company or another collectible/ hobby company," it states. "The Company's goal is to achieve leadership in targeted markets worldwide by acting on significant consumer trends, continuously applying innovation, and developing consumer-preferred brands and products distributed through multiple channels."

Great. Now here's another goal to aspire to: Pull your corporate head out of the sand and start carefully overseeing your contract manufacturers so they don't poison your young customers. If RC2 can't do that, then, pardon the sentiment, Thomas deserves to die a slow and painful death -- from lead poisoning.

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