McDonald's Recalls Shrek Glasses for Cadmium — What is This Toxic Metal and Why is it Used?

McDonald's is recalling 12 million drinking glasses -- most likely sold to children or parents of children -- because Federal regulators have determined they contain dangerous levels of the toxic metal cadmium. According to the Chicago Tribune's breaking coverage of the story, "the glasses have been sold for $2 apiece at McDonald's restaurants across the country as a promotional tie-in with the movie. Purchasers will be advised to keep them away from children and to return them to McDonald's for a refund."

Cadmium has captured the headlines quite a bit recently. In a recent Spend Matters examination of this toxic metal that is making its way into Chinese-made products we note that the US government has been "taking a proactive stance to keep dangerous products off American shelves, as well as a reactive and punitive stance towards the importers." But what is cadmium and why do Chinese manufacturers use it in the first place?

For one, cadmium is an inexpensive byproduct of the mining of another metal: zinc. Lisa Reisman, Co-Editor of the Spend Matters sister-site MetalMiner suggests, "cadmium is mined with zinc. It is produced in Zinc ore. As zinc is produced, cadmium is mined with it. It is a byproduct that is abundant. Cadmium's main property is that it is a good plating metal (e.g., for steel plate) but it also poses health risks. In the EU, cadmium is actually a RoHS restricted substance and its use is banned for products that fall under these guidelines (like lead). It is both toxic and carcinogenic."

Lisa also notes that there are substitutes for the metal in steel. "Rhodium is also used for plating for corrosion resistance/strengthening, especially in jewelry". However, in consumer applications, "companies still use it, even if it is a banned substance when used as a stabilizer for plastics or as a pigment (in paints) in certain countries." Moreover, it is still used in the battery market as well, Lisa suggests. "Ironically, quite often the 'green' re-chargable kind of battery," she notes. But why is cadmium ending up in kid's jewelry and Shrek cups at McDonalds? Primarily because it is inexpensive, widely available and, until recently, a metal that was not as widely tested for in different world markets as lead has been.

Still, this could be changing. The speed and circumstances surrounding this particular recall seem unorthodox. According to the Tribune story, "the recall, which is scheduled to be officially announced Friday by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, was set in motion by an anonymous tip last week to U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. Speier alerted the consumer commission, which tested the glasses on an accelerated basis, confirming the presence of cadmium."

While it is not yet clear that the glasses were produced in China, it appears cadmium's use, in this case, was tied to pigments in paint, which is not uncommon in developing markets. Spend Matters research suggests a moderate probability that this product came from China given the recent trend to cadmium's illegal use in China-sourced products as well as the presence of McDonald's own sourcing operations in the region (our sources suggest McDonald's has an operation that sources Happy Meal packaging and related non-food products from the area).

What's our last word on the situation? It's pretty clear that unless McDonald's takes the PR initiative with this recall and leverages the situation by announcing new standards of supply chain traceability and accountability, that it will have an ogre of a problem on its hands.

Spend Matters will continue to update this important supply risk story as more information becomes available.

Jason Busch

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