The Hong Kong company that manufactured millions of poisonous toy beads in mainland China issued a public apology on Thursday, with the chairman saying that it had not occurred to anyone to check whether an inexpensive glue ingredient in the beads would be dangerous for children to eat.
The beads, marketed as Aqua Dots in North America and as Bindeez in Europe and Asia, were recalled this month after at least 14 children became sick when they ate the beads; several of the children were briefly in comas. Medical researchers in Australia discovered that the glue ingredient breaks down in the body into GHB, the date rape drug banned in the United States and capable of causing unconsciousness that can lead to death.
“Our apologies to all the children who ate the beads by accident and their parents, and overseas consumers,” JSSY Ltd., the manufacturer, said in a statement. “We apologize for all the negative effect caused by this incident to China manufacturers. We apologize for the negative effect on ‘Made in China.’”
The beads have drawn renewed attention to weaknesses in Chinese safety regulations, particularly regarding toys. Chinese officials responded to large-scale recalls of Thomas the Tank Engine and Mattel toys last summer by promising tighter enforcement.
But Carter Keithley, the president of the Toy Industry Association in the United States, said at a toy industry conference two weeks ago in Guangzhou that the bead recall had made it harder for American toy vendors to promise consumers that China was stepping up its vigilance.
“This latest incident has made it extremely awkward for us to continue that defense,” he said.
Liao Chu-yuan, the chairman and owner of JSSY, said the company had worried about the possibility that children might choke by swallowing the beads, but had not considered the possibility that the chemicals in the beads might be poisonous.
“We really didn’t look into the F.D.A. part, the food part,” Mr. Liao said in a telephone interview, referring to the Food and Drug Administration in the United States. He said that when JSSY checked F.D.A. regulations after problems with the beads surfaced this autumn, the company quickly found that the chemical was banned in anything that people might consume.
Liang Shuhe, a deputy director general of China’s ministry of commerce, said Chinese toy makers faced narrowing profit margins — a result of rising wages and the appreciation of the yuan against the dollar — but should still meet safety standards.
“Toy safety is a high priority, as is the health of children,” he said.
Aqua Dots and Bindeez beads are brightly colored and somewhat smaller than jelly beans. Children assemble them in patterns and then sprinkle them with water, causing the beads to adhere and form permanent shapes.
Mr. Liao said on Thursday that JSSY had chosen a glue ingredient for the beads that cost half as much as the glue ingredient that the beads’ main distributor, Moose Enterprise of Australia, thought JSSY was using. But he said repeatedly that the inexpensive hazardous ingredient had not been used for cost reasons. The ingredient also softens the plastic beads.
JSSY tested the more expensive ingredient in its initial development of the beads and found two problems with it, according to Mr. Liao. One problem was that beads manufactured with it tended to swell when sprinkled with water, posing a choking hazard.
The other problem was that mixing plastic with the more expensive ingredient took six hours in a rotating drum and produced a sticky, oily material that was hard to manufacture into beads. The less expensive glue ingredient took just two hours in the drum and produced a more malleable mixture, Mr. Liao said.
He said that Moose Enterprise came to him nearly two years ago with samples of Japanese-made beads for children that also stick together when sprinkled with water.
Those beads, marketed in Europe and Japan as Aqua Beads, are manufactured using a different process developed for the dental industry. Aqua Beads have not been recalled. An independent European laboratory found no problems with them earlier this month, said Peter Brown, the chief executive of Flair Leisure Products, the British distributor of Aqua Beads.
JSSY spent a year independently developing its own chemical formula to produce beads similar to the Japanese toy, and then started large-scale manufacturing at the end of last year, Mr. Liao said.
JSSY did use the inexpensive glue ingredient in all the samples it sent to Moose and independent laboratories for safety tests, Mr. Liao said. The labs did not find any problems with the beads, but the labs may not have been aware the ingredient could be hazardous, he said.
The United States tightly regulates the inexpensive ingredient to prevent kitchen chemists from using it to make GHB. But in China, the same ingredient is widely used in cosmetics, including face creams, Mr. Liao said.
JSSY did not share its chemical formula with Moose, he said, adding that, “In chemistry, we usually don’t tell the marketing company our formula — our formula is valuable.”
Mr. Liao refused to say how Moose came to have the impression that the more expensive ingredient was being used. “Moose will probably sue me, so we’ll have to save it for that,” he said.
Moose executives were traveling on Thursday and were not available for comment.
The main factory for the beads is a white three-story building with a sliding steel gate and a slogan on the front, “With the right mentality, you can go far.” The factory stands in a gritty neighborhood on the northeastern outskirts of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. Two smaller factories nearby package the beads.
On a recent morning, a half-dozen suppliers to the main factory were outside the gate, complaining that they had not been paid for months.
Mr. Liao acknowledged on Thursday that he had been late in paying suppliers. He said that Moose suddenly stopped paying him altogether when the recall was announced. That left Mr. Liao with a shortage of cash to pay suppliers.
Mr. Liao said that he would be able to pay the suppliers with the proceeds from JSSY’s sales of other toys. He also repeated several times that the company’s choice of the inexpensive ingredient had not been made for financial reasons. “The cost issue is not really the issue,” he said.
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