Mattel Pulling Snacktime Kids Doll Off Shelf

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mattel Inc. said Monday it is pulling its popular Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids from the market after reports that the dolls chomped on the hair and fingers of dozens of children.

Mattel took the action after receiving 100 complaints about the dolls, designed to eat plastic French fries and other fake foods. It was the largest such step ever taken by the El Segundo-based toy manufacturer.

Mattel is offering $40 refunds to the 500,000 people who purchased the doll and is removing 200,000 unsold dolls from stores.

The action represents a reversal for Mattel, which initially said it would not withdraw the toy but agreed to place a warning label on packages. But the doll has received a stream of adverse publicity since Christmas, with some local newscasts showing the doll gobbling up hair.

In a statement, Mattel Chief Executive Jill E. Barad said the company was discontinuing the toy to maintain consumer "confidence in the safety and value of our toys."

"Our job is to bring joy to children's lives," she said. "If any of our products are causing concerns, we are committed to responding in a responsible manner."

Mattel announced the withdrawal jointly with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which applauded the action. The CPSC had opened an investigation into the doll after receiving 35 complaints about its errant eating habits.

Kathleen Begala, spokeswoman for the CPSC, said Monday that the commission had not received reports of serious injury. She said the commission did not pressure Mattel to discontinue the toy.

Consumer activists believe Mattel bowed to bad publicity.

"This is a good example of the type of action that can be taken by a company that results from consumer pressure," said Pam Pressley of California Public Interest Research Group.

Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars, said that it has never undertaken a product withdrawal of this size.

Consumer activists could not recall a similar step involving a high-profile toy. Though many dozens of toys are recalled each year, most involve inexpensive toys from obscure manufacturers.

"That is a lot of toys," said Ed Mierzwinski of CalPIRG in Washington, commenting on the Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids. "I think it is very significant they decided to do this. It is an important goodwill gesture to their customers."

Mierzwinski said the incident underscored the need for on/off switches on battery-operated toys. The Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids did not have switches, but could be deactivated by removing their backpacks.

According to one report, a panicked adult who did not know how to deactivate the doll cut a child's hair to free her from a Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kid.

Mattel said it could not estimate the impact of the product withdrawal on the company. The 700,000 Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids manufactured have a retail value of $28 million. A Mattel spokeswoman said the company did not expect a huge number of refund requests.

"One hundred out of 500,000 is not a big number," said spokeswoman Lisa McKendall.

For the nine months ended Sept. 30, 1996, Mattel had net income of $264 million on sales of $2.59 billion. The company has not reported full year 1996 results.

To receive a $40 refund covering the price of the doll and estimated shipping and handling costs, send dolls to Mattel Distribution Center at 14310 Ramona Ave., Chino, Calif. 91710. Returns should include a note clearly indicating the consumer's name and return address. For more information, consumers can call Mattel at (800) 335-1700, Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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