By Jackie Crosby, Star Tribune

First it was Thomas the Tank Engine. Then Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego. Since April, nearly 7.8 million potentially dangerous toys have been pulled from the shelves of U.S. stores, all made in China.

While the nation's three biggest toy retailers -- Wal-Mart, Toys 'R' Us and Minneapolis-based Target -- hire third-party inspectors in China to test for lead paint and choking hazards, there's no federal law requiring them to do so.

A growing chorus of consumer advocates thinks there should be.

"Our children are guinea pigs in these products," said Nancy Cowles of Kids in Danger, a Chicago-based advocacy group. "We need to demand that these Chinese products be improved and made safe."

Congress is looking for ways to beef up the enforcement powers and budget of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). It is responsible for protecting the public from the risk of serious injury or death from more than 15,000 types of products.

The case of Jarnell Brown, a 4-year-old Minneapolis boy who died of lead poisoning last year after swallowing a heart-shaped charm, has played a prominent role in the national debate over the safety of Chinese-made goods.

Scott Wolfson, a CPSC spokesman, said the commission was "deeply moved" by Jarnell's death and has since been pushing to ban lead in children's jewelry. But a recent New York Times investigation found that despite a two-year effort to root out lead-filled jewelry, federal and state inspectors are still finding the hazardous items on shelves.

"It's clear the CPSC doesn't have the tools it needs to adequately safeguard the public," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Klobuchar joined colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee in calling this month for a study on whether the CPSC should pretest products from China that contain paint, similar to the Food and Drug Administration's approach to seafood.

Retailers have incentive

Because of the recalls, retailers are circling the wagons. No company wants to come across as putting profits before children's safety. And recalls are costly to reputations and the bottom line: Mattel is predicting it will lose $30 million over a recall of 83 types of Fisher-Price toys; the manufacturer of Thomas & Friends, RC2, predicts an $8 million hit and is already facing lawsuits.

Wal-Mart, which leads the nation in toy sales, will retest all products it received from the vendor involved in the Fisher-Price recall, said spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien.

Toys 'R' Us, meanwhile, has increased its quality-assurance budget by 25 percent in the past seven months to address rising concerns about Chinese-made products, said spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh.

At Toys 'R' Us, even before a toy is mass-produced, a prototype is tested by outside inspectors for such things as loose parts, fire hazards or paint containing more than the federal government's limit of 0.06 percent of lead. Inspectors make unannounced visits to Chinese factories and perform random checks of toys during production and again on the docks before containers are shipped to the United States.

"We flunk toys all the time," Waugh said.

Even after the goods arrive, Toys 'R' Us inspectors routinely pull toys off retailers' shelves and ship them to an independent testing lab.

Target officials declined to discuss specific ways it ensures the toys it manufactures are safe or whether it is making changes in the way it works with vendors such as Mattel, which until recently had a strong reputation for safety.

In the past year and a half, Target has pushed aggressively into the toy market. It manufactures six private-label brands -- Baby I'm Yours, Little Tree, Starring Me/ Role Play, Cuddle Zone, Kool Toyz and PlayWonder -- and also imports toys sold exclusively at Target -- all are made in China.

But the retailer has not been immune from problems with its Chinese manufacturers. This year, Target has voluntarily issued four recalls on toys made in China. The largest came Jan. 18, when the retailer recalled about 460,000 Chinese-made baby rattles and photo-frame ornaments that were found to be a choking hazard.

Since 2005, Target has pulled from its shelves 1.7 million Chinese-made toys, according to data from the CPSC. Among the problems were parts that could cause choking; lead-based paint, or, in the case of a recall of 494,000 kids' bike helmets, a product that didn't meet federal safety standards.

What's wrong with the tests

Mattel's recent recall of 1 million Fisher-Price toys for lead paint has revealed problems with the voluntary pre-sale testing program and the way in which recalls are handled by the toy industry and federal regulators.

In Mattel's case, the Chinese factory apparently was responsible for doing its own testing, although retailers who trusted the Mattel name had no way of knowing that. The CPSC has called for an investigation.

"It's kind of like the fox guarding the henhouse," said Donald Mays, who leads the product safety program at Consumers Union. "But the retailers' vigilance for public safety may have been lowered because they trusted that Fisher-Price wouldn't bring a bad product to the market."

Under U.S. law, companies aren't required by the CPSC to reveal the name of the factory where the shoddy work was discovered. The toy companies instead informally circulate facts to each other, each one deciding whether to do its own follow-up lab work.

Wolfson of the CPSC said the agency is more concerned about changing a loophole in the law to make it illegal for businesses to knowingly sell a recalled product.

Mays and others are calling for more inspections, and a more transparent paper trail that includes Chinese factories and their suppliers, which are motivated to keep costs low.

Mays said there's something wrong when light fixtures must get a government-approved stamp from Underwriters Laboratories, but toys don't.

"Unlike Europe, the United States doesn't have a certification for toys," he said. "Government needs to step to the plate."