The agency never pressed for a recall because it decided the jewelry was primarily intended for teens or adults, not children.
Yet on the sales receipt, the items were listed as "girls jewelry" and "girls accessories" and a Meijer spokesman described them as "children's jewelry." He said they were briefly removed from store shelves, then returned, then pulled again when AP began inquiring.
Nowhere were the agency's conclusions more curious than the biggest recall of 2010 — 12 million drinking glasses sold by McDonald's to promote the animated movie "Shrek Forever After." Cadmium used in red decorations on the glass could rub onto a child's hand, and eventually get into the mouth.
Months after the recall, the agency said the glasses shouldn't have been pulled because they were not mainly for kids.
And then there was the agency's assessment of brightly colored bracelet charms shaped like flip flops. Sold exclusively by Wal-Mart, the charms were 90 percent cadmium.
"Before you decide for certain that you want to recall the Flip Flop Charms, take a look at the image of the product in the attached email," Wal-Mart's then-director of product safety and compliance, Kyle Holifield, wrote the CPSC in January 2010. "There just isn't anything about the product itself or its packaging to indicate that it was designed or intended primarily for use by children."
Holifield's email only included the front of the packaging. The back of the packaging says the charms are "For ages 3 and over."
According to guidelines drafted by Wal-Mart's own product safety staff and endorsed by the jewelry industry, such labeling statements make jewelry a children's product.
That should have made the charms subject to cadmium limits — and eligible for a recall.
In a written statement, Wal-Mart said: "When CPSC asked us about this item, we considered it an adult jewelry item because it was displayed alongside other adult jewelry-making items, and not intended for use by children."
Even CPSC field investigators who collected items for sale during the "children's jewelry sweep" were confused by what qualifies as children's jewelry under agency guidelines. At headquarters, CPSC experts decided some of the products were not for children after all.
Click on an interactive that allows readers to determine whether everyday items are considered "children's products" under U.S. law: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/cadmium/
Associated Press researcher Julie Reed in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.
The Associated Press National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org
Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.