The fast-food industry gives away millions of toys with its kiddie meals each year. But these freebies, considered an essential marketing strategy for boosting short-term sales and creating the next generation of loyal customers, also have constituted the vast majority of hazardous toys recalled by the federal government this year despite a recent push for better safety standards by regulators and the companies themselves.
Fast-food promotional toys have accounted for 77% of the 9.4 million toys recalled this year, according to a Times analysis of data provided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That's a leap from only 4% of all toys recalled in 2000.
So far this year, there have been eight recalls of toys from promotional campaigns, five of which involved fast-food giveaways. The most recent was Burger King Corp.'s recall of 2.6 million Hourglass Space Sprout and Look for Me Bumblebee toys two weeks ago. There were two fast-food recalls in 2000 and one or two in each of the previous three years.
McDonald's Corp., Burger King and other restaurant chains, which collectively spend about $4 billion on toy giveaways every year, are quick to point out that none of their toys recalled this year caused death or serious injury.
The individual chains refuse to disclose how many toys they distribute every year but industry experts and others believe the figure to be in the hundreds of millions. Given that, the amount that is recalled is still relatively small, said Ann Brown, chairwoman of the safety commission.
"It's a matter of concern, rather than a matter of panic," she said.
Nonetheless, Brown acknowledged the rise in the number of fast-food toy recalls is all the more conspicuous, and indeed ironic, because it follows dramatic efforts by her agency and the industry to ensure that the freebies intended to attract children into their restaurants won't kill or maim them.
Last December--one year after two children were suffocated by Pokemon toys distributed by Burger King--McDonald's and its safety contractor, RAM Consulting, rolled out Virtual Child, a computer simulated, three-dimensional infant that they boasted could identify potentially hazardous toys by choking on virtual prototypes.
Then in January, the safety commission sponsored a toy-safety conference for fast-food chains and other companies in the toy giveaway business. More than 130 people attended, including representatives from Burger King, Jack in the Box Inc. and KFC Corp., as well as dozens of the marketing firms and toy manufacturers contracted by the industry for its promotions.
But since the conference--at which regulators urged industry representatives to test toys and label them for the appropriate age groups--five fast-food toy recalls have occurred, including one by McDonald's in March of its Scooter Bug toys after three reports of children breaking off the bug's antennae and choking or gagging on them.
Although the conference may have prompted fast-food chains to do more in the future, it did not force them to withhold toys already on restaurant shelves or to reconsider promotions in the marketing pipeline. Such promotions take one to two years to go from concept to development to manufacturing and shipping.
Fast-food chains are intensely competitive about toy promotions, and they consider the premiums an essential element in their overall marketing strategy, said Aimee Drolet, an expert in consumer behavior at UCLA's Anderson School.
By luring young children whose parents and siblings generally follow along, promotions boost short-term sales and create repeat customers, she said.
What's more, kids today are hooked on the freebies.
"If you went and got a kiddie meal, and you didn't get a toy promotion, you'd feel ripped off," Drolet said.
So, for better or worse, the fast-food chains left in place promotional campaigns developed before the recent push for better safety standards. All the talk about child safety, however, has spurred the industry to acknowledge potential hazards after parents report them.
Chick-fil-A Inc., an Atlanta-based chain with about 1,000 restaurants in 34 states, for example, quickly recalled its Planet Discovery giveaways in February after receiving a report that a child nearly choked on a suction cup that detached from the body of the toy.
"Having just left the [commission's] conference, we wanted to err on the side of caution," said Don Perry, vice president of public relations for Chick-fil-A.
Both of Burger King's recalls this year were also initiated by the chain and announced after receiving reports of children putting toy pieces into their mouths.
"Safety is the first thought that we have in mind when we start designing these toys," said Walt Riker, a McDonald's spokesman.
McDonald's laboratories rigorously tested the Scooter Bug, he said. A manufacturing defect, however, appeared in a "handful" out of hundreds of thousands of the bugs, Riker said.