Forget toys that can talk or light up. This holiday season, many Canadian parents are more interested in toys that are toxic-free, eco-friendly or educational.
But the validity of those claims is being thrown into question after Health Canada announced a large product recall involving Melissa & Doug, LLC, a company that has built its reputation on its rigorous safety standards and careful product inspections - an alternative to big-name companies that have sold lead-tainted toys imported from China.
"They are playing with fire when it comes to their brand," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a national advocacy group.
On Friday, Health Canada announced a recall of more than 26,000 Melissa & Doug wooden Slice and Bake Cookie Sets, Shape Sorting Cubes and Pound-a-Peg toys after testing found excessive barium in the surface paint. Retailers such as Indigo Books & Music Inc. have pulled the products from store shelves, and consumers are advised to return items for a refund or exchange. The toys were made in China.
Exposure to barium can cause nausea and vomiting, as well as more serious health problems, including high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythm.
Similar recalls were issued in August and September, 2008, after health officials found high amounts of barium in two other toys sold by the company.
It's just the latest black eye for companies pursuing the lucrative market of health-conscious, eco-minded parents. Earlier this year, SIGG Switzerland AG revealed that despite marketing itself as bisphenol-A-free, its aluminum water bottles contained traces of the hormone-disrupting chemical.
The Melissa & Doug recall is also a blow to parents who helped fuel the boom in demand for all-natural, chemical-free and wooden toys and other children's products.
"That's the problem - who do you trust and how do you know who to trust?" asked Annemarie Tempelman-Kluit, founder and editor-in-chief of yoyomama.ca, a British Columbia-based, environmentally focused website and blog devoted to moms.
"Everyone tries to pitch themselves as safe and green and I think it behooves the parent to do a little bit of background research."
Mr. Smith said the Melissa & Doug recall is part of a trend that sees companies making promises on their labels without backing them up or offering consumers any proof.
"There's no question that greenwashing is quite common these days," he said. "People, manufacturers and retailers are hiding behind claims of green."
A spokesman for Melissa & Doug defended the Connecticut-based company's safety record and said numerous tests are done on toys before they're sent to store shelves. But it's impossible for any company to be perfect, Rob Iatesta said.
"Honestly, it would be in my opinion a false and misleading statement for anyone at any company to say that there would be absolutely 100-per-cent [safety]achievement absolutely every year forever," he said.
Mr. Iatesta said it appears that some products became contaminated with amounts of barium that exceed Canadian limits. The company doesn't yet know the source of the contamination, he said.
Others, like Ms. Tempelman-Kluit, said the growing number of recalls affecting Melissa & Doug products has eroded her trust in the company. While they're still probably better than many other toy-makers, she said, they've also failed in some ways to live up to their promises to consumers.
At Environmental Defence, Mr. Smith said the Melissa & Doug recalls and other similar problems have an upside: They serve as a warning to others to do everything possible to avoid failing safety tests.
"We get a few more examples like this," he said, "and I think that'll help a lot to smarten up companies."