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The New Economy

With Tylenol recall 2010, a corporate icon stumbles

Johnson & Johnson burnished its image with a gutsy Tylenol recall in 1982. But its 2010 recall was long overdue, an FDA report charges.

By / January 15, 2010

Displays of over-the-counter drugs, like this one in New York City, may be juggled a bit after Johnson & Johnson expanded a recall of several of its drugs Friday, including certain kinds of Tylenol and Motrin.

Richard B. Levine/Newscom/File

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In a moment of startling corporate clarity, Johnson & Johnson recalled all its Tylenol from US store shelves in 1982 after capsules tampered with in Chicago were linked to six fatalities.

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The move cost the company $100 million and threatened to decimate its leading share of the market. Instead, consumers applauded the company's openness and sales rebounded within a year. Three decades later, the move is still regarded as a shining example of corporate social responsibility.

The time it took the company's CEO to make that gutsy call? Six days.

On Friday, a unit of Johnson & Johnson expanded a recall of Tylenol products to other over-the-counter medicines, including Benadryl, Motrin, and Rolaids, because of reports of nausea and other symptoms. The time from those initial reports to Friday's action? Twenty months – and only after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had finished an investigation that found multiple problems at the Johnson & Johnson factory.

It's sad to see a corporate icon stumble, especially when the problems are of its own making. The move is a reminder of how fragile corporate reputations are.

Users of Johnson & Johnson's over-the-counter drugs can click here to see which products are being recalled. They can also call the company for help at 888-222-6036 (including weekends).

Less lethal, more embarrassing

To be fair, Johnson & Johnson's current problems are far less severe than in 1982. The effects of the tainted drugs have been uncomfortable but not lethal. There's no killer this time running around injecting Tylenol tablets with cyanide.

What's embarrassing about the latest recall is that it took so long for the company's business unit, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, to detect the problem and act.

"While McNeil has cooperated with FDA in recent weeks, there initial response was unsatisfactory," says Christopher Kelly, an FDA press officer. "We repeatedly pressed them."

For example: In 2008, starting in May, the company received 76 consumer complaints about a musty odor emanating from some of its Tylenol products, according to a detailed FDA investigator's report (.pdf) filed last week. But the company didn't test for the problem until September of that year and only tested the drugs and the packaging, not the factory environment, the inspector reported.

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