In a warehouse in Wembley, men in white coats are abusing cuddly toys in the name of safety. By Karen Falconer
Far from Lapland and Father Christmas's diligent elves, men and women in white coats are busily chipping away with little hammers in laboratories: setting light to a teddy here, dropping a lead weight on a plastic aeroplane there, dipping paint scrapings into chemical concoctions. They have no magical powers, sleighs or reindeer, but nonetheless they're doing an essential job to make Christmasfun for children.

These are the modern Father Christmas helpers, the technologists and trading standards officers who check toys to ensure that they don't escape the rigorous safety measures now in place in both Europe and much of the rest of the world, including Hong Kong and China.

All year round they visit factories, laboratories and retail outlets in Britain and the Far East. But the run up to Christmas is the time they have to be particularly attentive, for 55 per cent, or over pounds 800m worth, of all the new toys sold each year leap from the shelves within just a few weeks. And, as the rush rises and popular toys become temporarily extinct, so the chance of inferior, or even dangerous, products slipping through the net increases.

It's when the mainstream retailers under-order for peak periods that problems emerge. Last year the high street ran out of Power Rangers as what had been a slow-selling toy suddenly became all the rage. Immediately, poor quality fakes flooded on to market stalls and shops set up specially to profit from the Christmas rush.

Too often, at least according to their high-street competitors, these toys are substandard and may not conform to the strict regulations on safe play, inflammability and toxicity.

When I visited the SGS laboratory on a dark industrial estate in the Wembley area, I was expecting to see hordes of toys stacked in piles around the place. Instead, I found a series of laboratories more like a school science lab than a toy workshop, with inconspicuous testing equipment such as a heavy weight on a metal pipe under which toys were placed to see how easily they'd crush. The under-threes plastic truck didn't even creak as it was pounded by the umpteen-kilogram weight.

As a highlight, I was looking forward to seeing a teddy bear burst into flames. Instead, the pounds 4.99 teddy from Woolworth's simply singed as the lighter burnt away at it. It didn't even drip hot plastic. The idea of combing a soft toy with a metal detector also came as a surprise. But a piece of broken needle from a machine can mean disaster for the recipient child - and the producer.

At every stage the proccesses are finnicky and time-consuming. One man has been doing the tests for lead content in paints for 10 years. He sits at a machine, with scalpel in hand, scrapes off the paint, then dips it into a chemical solution. If there's too much lead, the colour changes. As it needs careful monitoring, it's impossible to automate the process. "We've offered him other jobs," said the floor manager, "but although he's very intelligent and intellectual, he's happy to keep doing this one - and he does it incredibly well."

Another test is that for small parts, in which pieces of a toy are dropped into a throat-sized metal tube to see whether they would block a child's windpipe. But, there are other potential problems to identify: inferior quality stuffings in soft toys, traditionally one of the most problematic areas; infected water in water toys; bad quality plastics; wheels in battery- powered cars that might trap or take off a child's finger. The list is long.

Each year there are around 1,000 reported toy accidents - but experts insist that most of these have nothing to do with the toy itself, but are related to leaving a car where someone will trip on it, or falling with a doll in hand and poking out an eye. Today's fears, they insist, are based on experiences 30 years old. "A 1955 newspaper cutting," says Ian Scott, vice president of the British Toys and Hobby Association "talks about the eyes coming out of teddies. Then they used to be fitted glass on a metal stem, dipped in glue and stuck in. Now they're locked in with a washer behind. Regulations are becoming so tight now, it's got to a point where it's really silly: before long, the way things are going, it will be a case of toys should be seen and not heard."

Whether that's true or not, it is beyond dispute that some toys do slip through the safety nets. Particularly when money is tight (the toy trade is notoriously slack this year), consumers take more risks and buy away from reputable outlets. A spokesman for the British Standards Institute said that sometimes retailers will report competitors selling inferior goods. "Companies spend a lot of money on making sure that other people's products pass the grade," he said. "The biggest form of policing is self- policing. Competitors shop people."

Bernard Buckley, quality assurance manager at Woolworth, denied this. "We wouldn't shop competitors." he said, and related a tale about a toy he failed recently on grounds of toxicity. "The toy was over the lead limit but I can't tell you what toy it was because someone else is selling it."

Mr Buckley, like other major toy players, is keen to point out how thorough his company's checks are. "We visit Hong Kong twice a year, following the buyers around," he said. "We discuss our findings and any need to modify a new product. The factory will then send us a sample for approval. We review the product and then get a revised sample."

In addition, big retailers and manufacturers normally employ a third- party safety agency like SGS to keep a regular eye on the factory, including spot checks when most of the product has been packed. "That way we don't ship 30,000 toys only to find them unacceptable when they arrive," said Mr Buckley. Naturally, not every single toy is checked, but if 100 out of 3,000 are checked, the law of probability suggests that the rest should be safe.

Without a doubt, as big businesses controls more and more of the toy industry, there's less and less room for shoddy goods. But, while there's any risk, it's worth watching out for quality criteria recognised by the trade: the European Union's CE mark and the latest mark of authenticity: the British Association of Toy Retailers' little green sticker saying "Approved Lion Mark Retailer".