The US government is working with Alibaba to keep unsafe toys out of America

A toy factory in Ganyu county, Zhejiang province, China.
A toy factory in Ganyu county, Zhejiang province, China.
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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Alibaba and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have inked an unusual partnership to keep harmful children’s products on the online shopping giant’s websites from being purchased by American consumers and wholesalers. As Chinese online retailers expand globally, the partnership could be the first of many such deals, the US commission’s chairman told reporters at a children’s products exhibition.

“Long gone are the days when we could pull stuff off of shelves,” said Elliot F. Kaye, the CPSC’s chairman. Already, the commission has dedicated employees that comb US websites looking for products the commission deems unsafe, but this is the first time it has worked with Alibaba, which opened its first site for US consumers last July. “We anticipate the next frontier will be outside of US borders,” Kaye said.

The commission will give Alibaba a list of products recalled by US regulators (like Buckyballs, the super high-powered magnets that can do incredible internal damage if swallowed), and ask that Alibaba make sure they can’t be purchased and shipped into the US.

About 90% of the children’s toys sold in the US are already made in China, and budget-strapped US regulators have struggled to fully test and oversee those imports, relying on spot checks at US ports instead. Alibaba’s “order online direct from China” business model makes things even more difficult, because the products arrive in the US through private courier, and aren’t subject to these checks.

After a flood of unsafe toys from China was discovered in the US in 2007, the CPSC’s budget was dramatically increased. But it still isn’t large—it was just $117 million in 2014, or about one-tenth the size of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s budget.

How exactly Alibaba will halt US sales of recalled products is still to be decided. In a statement, an Alibaba spokesman said the company looks forward to “working collaboratively with the chairman and his team to do everything possible to protect consumers.”

The sheer volume of retailers, wholesalers, and products on Alibaba’s websites will make surveillance tough. Alibaba says it spent more than $160 million fighting fakes on its websites from 2013 to the end of last year, but knock-offs always seem to be available. Kaye said the CPSC plans to “hold their feet to the fire,” and vigilantly monitor how quickly Alibaba is blocking recalled products from sale in the US.