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Playing It Safe

Do you know if the toys sold in your store are OK for customers’ pets?
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

Courtesy of Kong Co.
As consumers’ concern for their pets’ health and safety intensifies, especially in the wake of pet food and toy recalls during the past year, discriminating retailers look more closely at the toys they sell. From small independent mom-and-pop shops to mass-market retailers, stores are demanding higher-quality, safety-tested, environmentally sustainable toys for patrons’ pets—and sometimes, they’re doing the testing to prove it.

Petsmart, for instance, requires that vendor partners follow safety and quality protocols established by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for human safety. They also hire an independent company to conduct a variety of quality-assurance tests on representative batches of toys, including tests for arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium, according to a statement on the company website.

“The safety of pets is our No. 1 priority, which is why we do the testing,” says Jennifer Simmons, media relations representative for Petsmart Inc. in Phoenix. “And it’s done on a continual basis. It’s something we always look for and something we always do on everything.”

Partly in response, toy designers have implemented their own safety standards and testing in the manufacturing process to ensure they satisfy the requests of the larger retailers. Though no federal regulatory agency oversees pet-toy safety, toy makers have also adopted standards—of both chemical and physical properties—from the children’s toy industry.

“With the recent recalls and the health issues, more larger mass-market retailers have really heightened their safety regulations,” says Jean Chae, director of new business development for Simply Fido in Brooklyn, N.Y. “And every retailer is asking for different things. Target, Petsmart, Petco—they each have their own safety criteria. It’s very costly, but to obtain the business, you have to comply.”
Self-Regulating Industry

Retailers owe it to their customers to make sure pet toys are safe. (Carol Boker/PPNI)
Laura Alvey, trade press spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine, confirms that no government agency oversees the pet toy industry.

“In the past, we used to send [people] to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but we’ve since found out that they don’t have anything to do with it either,” she says. “Not everything that is made in the U.S. or manufactured here has a government regulatory agency oversight, and this just happens to be an area that doesn’t.”

Some believe the lack of regulations and standards shouldn’t create too much concern. Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Assn. in Greenwich, Conn., says pet product manufacturers share a passion for pets, and they’re not in the business to simply turn a profit.

“They’re really worried that whatever they put into the marketplace is going to be safe for pets,” he says. “As with any industry, it’s a self-correcting industry, a self-policing industry, and even more than with other industries, it holds itself to a higher standard because of the level of passion of both the consumer and the manufacturer.”

The only quantifiable standard that manufacturers can follow centers on those created for children’s toys. A handful of companies, including Kong Co. in Golden, Colo., and Simply Fido, use one or more of these standards when designing, manufacturing and testing their toys:

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: A United States-based agency that regulates the sale and manufacturing of products, including children’s toys, to protect against unreasonable risks of injuries associated with consumer products.

American Society for Testing and Materials International: An international, voluntary standards-development organization that publishes the “Annual Book of ASTM Standards” for a range of materials, products, systems and services.

International Organization for Standardization: A network of national standards institutes of 157 countries that creates standards for products such as children’s toys. It works to create uniform standards across the globe.

EN-71: A toy safety standard that is legally required for all toys sold in the European Union.

Certified nontoxic: A certification issued by an independent testing facility, such as the Bureau Veritas Supply Chain Management, that allows manufacturers to claim “certified nontoxic” on their product packaging.

Certified organic: Issued by agencies approved by the United States Department of Agriculture, a “certified organic” designation confirms that a company uses no synthetic chemicals in its manufacturing process. Though these manufacturing standards are strictly voluntary for companies designing and selling pet toys in the United States, they do set the bar for the industry, says Chuck Costello, vice president of marketing for Kong Co. “When we started our company, there was no guidance,” he says. “There was nothing in place that said we had to do anything. But we knew that we needed to do something. We had to follow some standard, and luckily we found that there are children’s standards in place for some countries, so that’s what we do.”
Calling for Standards

Organic Toys on the Rise 

“Organic” and “natural” have been buzz words in the pet food segment for years. The terms can now be used to describe a growing number of pet toys, too. Manufacturers incorporate organic cotton fill in their plush toys, hemp and bamboo in their fabrics and vegetable-based dyes in their prints.
They’re using recycled cardboard in their packaging and alternative energy to power their plants.

The trend’s time has come, says Jay Keegan, manager for Chateau-Animaux in Washington, D.C.

“The organic trend is huge,” he says. “Post-recall, we were fielding 25 phone calls a day. ‘Do you carry holistic food, do you carry organic food, do you carry natural food?’”

Retailers just need to be aware that having those words on labels don’t necessarily mean they are true. By buying from reputable companies that can back up their packaging statements, retailers will be giving customers the best products possible.

While some manufacturers are conducting their own testing, others in the pet industry are calling for the creation of uniform, mandatory industry standards. Aaron Lamstein, founder of Worldwise Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., says the oversight could prevent injuries to pets, especially from products made by companies that focus on the bottom line rather than the safety of the animals. “Unfortunately, there is horrifically little oversight,” he says. “We wish there was more. A lot of manufacturers don’t understand how pets play with toys, and as a consequence, some of them can be pretty dangerous. So we wish there was oversight, and unfortunately, there is virtually zero. The only thing that is a pretty common thing is that there are rules around child safety.”

Though no one reported any movement toward creating an industry standard, Costello says his company would support organizations trying to pass laws regarding pet toy safety.

“After all the pet food recalls, and now lead and phthalates, all of this is adding up,” Costello says. “I sure hope regulations are going to be something that’s mandatory in the next three to five years. We feel that pets are a member of the family anyway, and if it’s not safe for a child, then it’s not safe for your dog.” Pet toy standards are something that would ease manager Jay Keegan’s mind. He’s in charge of purchasing for Chateau-Animaux in Washington, D.C., and he continually seeks out toys that are durable and organic and typically sticks with well-known brands. He’d like to see more oversight, however.

“There should be some governing body making sure there was nothing toxic in the toys and that they weren’t being made in a sweat shop in some little village [overseas] with a bunch of 12-year-old kids sewing dog toys,” Keegan says.  Currently, not all manufacturers follow the voluntary children’s toy standards, and not all retailers can test the products they sell. So what are mom-and-pop shops and independent stores to do? Stick with manufacturers they trust.

“It’s unrealistic for retailers to inspect manufacturing facilities,” says Richard Shiu, co-owner of Best in Show in San Francisco. “We just hope that the vendor does their due diligence and ensures that they’re working with reputable and high-quality manufacturers.”

As the pet industry continues to grow and diversify, retailers have more SKU choices than ever before. Whether the toys originate domestically or overseas, pet store owners should do their research, Vetere says.

“Make sure that you’re familiar with the people you’re dealing with, and make sure you establish some sort of a track record for these people that they are reputable,” he says. “As with any business issue, you’re going to want to make sure of the people who are supplying you with things that you’re going to put out to the marketplace.”

Retailers can point out safety issues to customers, Chae says. This includes telling pet owners about phthalates in rubber toys and lead in paint, reminding them to supervise cats that are playing with motorized toys and encouraging them to buy new toys when the old ones start falling apart. If retailers educate customers about the hazards, they’ll ask for safer toys.

“It’s the pet owner who has to make a decision for the pets,” Chae says. “So the more educated people are, the more they’ll ask questions. Then, I think the industry will change and we’ll have a better safety standard.” <HOME>

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Playing It Safe

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Reader Comments
I just returned two toys that were under the Petco name. The squeeker was packed in a plastic bag, surrounded by chunks of foam. Appears they are not as concerned with safety as they claim to be. The store manager certainly was not. It was a med size toy ripped open in minutes by a 7 month old puppy that would have chocked to death if we weren't watching. They should be ashamed to put their names on these toys.
rosemary, albany, NY
Posted: 3/31/2014 1:46:05 PM
I really enjoyed this article. I only buy toys from petsmart and petco because of their testing. I am interested to learn more about target and what they do to protect pets. It is a shame that more distributors do not test their toys.
Janice, bartlett, IL
Posted: 2/23/2014 6:29:11 AM
The Center for Pet Safety ( is an independent 501(c)3 non profit organization dedicated to companion animal and consumer safety. We are currently focusing our research on pet travel products. Please see the recent press release of our pilot study on harness crashworthiness: LINK
We welcome the opportunity to speak to the pet product industry and explain the importance of our mission.
Lindsey Wolko, Haymarket, VA
Posted: 6/22/2012 6:04:33 PM
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