Mattel was forced to deliver a humiliating public apology to ‘the Chinese people’ on Friday over the damaging succession of product recalls of China-made toys that the US toymaker has announced in recent months.

In a carefully stage-managed meeting in Beijing with a senior Chinese official, which, unusually, was open to the media, Thomas Debrowski, Mattel’s executive vice-president for worldwide operations, read out a prepared text that played down the role of Chinese factories in the recalls.

“Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologises personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys,” Mr Debrowski said.

The apology was in stark contrast to recent comments from Robert Eckert, Mattel’s chief executive. In testimony to the US Senate last week, he suggested that the fault for the group’s recent product recalls lay with outside contractors. “We were let down, and so we let you down,” he said.

The apology came as Simplicity, a US-based company that makes baby products, recalled 1m Chinese-made cots over a design flaw that has been blamed for the deaths of two infants.

In recent months, California-based Mattel has announced three recalls of 21m toys made in China, where the group conducts two-thirds its manufacturing.

But while some of the toys were recalled because they used excessive amounts of lead paint, the majority – about 18m – were deemed unsafe because of Mattel design flaws rather than shoddy manufacturing. Doggie Day Care, Batman and Polly Pocket toys were recalled because they contained small magnets that could be dangerous if swallowed.

Mr Debrowski said Mattel understood and appreciated “the issues that this has caused for the reputation of Chinese manufacturers”.

In a later statement, Mattel said that some reports had “mischaracterised” its comments and said it had “apologised to the Chinese today just as it has wherever its toys are sold”. But the statement made clear that it was also apologising to the country and its reputation over the magnet-related recalls.

The apology comes weeks after the owner of one of the Chinese factories used by Mattel committed suicide in the wake of the first recall announcement.

Joe Lampel, a professor of strategy with the Cass Business School in London, said Mattel’s volte-facehad been driven by a need to build bridges with Beijing. The group’s reputation with consumers had been affected, he said. “They have to salvage some of their business relationship with China. They need the goodwill of the government.”

The Chinese government has argued that the toy recalls unfairly damaged the credibility of its manufacturers at a time when widespread questions have been raised about the quality of China-made goods.

Li Changjiang, head of the government’s product quality watchdog, who led the Chinese delegation at yesterday’s meeting, said Mattel should take steps to “improve their quality control measures”.

He said that much of the US group’s profits were generated by factories in China. “This shows that our co-operation is in the interests of Mattel, and both parties should value our co-operation. I really hope that Mattel can learn lessons and gain experience from these incidents.”

Mattel, which has been making toys in Asia for several decades, had been considered a model for how to outsource manufacturing.

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