Months after Johnson & Johnson's April recall of 135 million bottles of infant and children's medicines, a congressman today is asking if the company knew about problems earlier and tried to avoid public disclosure by discussing a "phantom recall" of some of the same over-the-counter medications.
U.S. Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in announcing a new hearing of his committee into Johnson & Johnson's tactics to be held Sept. 30, cited evidence gathered by his committee since its first hearing earlier this year as the reason.
One part of the evidence: An e-mail note suggesting the company considered a phantom recall of some over the counter medicines months before initiating the full recall.
"This is about the safety of trusted medication that our children and grandchildren use," he said in a statement. "The evidence we have uncovered since our first hearing is extremely troubling."
Towns held a hearing in the wake of Johnson & Johnson's original recall of 40 varieties of over the counter medications. While much of the hearing concerned the recall of the 135 million bottles in April, part of it concerned the propriety of a "phantom recall" Johnson & Johnson used earlier to recover adult Motrin tablets sold in gas stations.
Instead of issuing a formal recall which would have led to bad publicity, J&J hired a contractor to go to each gas station carrying the product and buy all of the Motrin tablets, thereby avoiding public disclosure of a recall. At the hearing a company official said the reason was the product wasn't fully effective, but wasn't dangerous, and the product was in limited distribution.
She also said the plan had the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.
Today Towns said that the committee discovered e-mail evidence that the contractor hired for the gas station recall had been contacted about doing a similar, but larger "phantom recall" of other Johnson & Johnson products including in April 2009, a recall of the same Children's Tylenol brand that eventually became part of the 2010 recall.
An e-mail the committee released included the contractor WIS talking among themselves about the possibility of getting the new phantom recall business.
"We are exploring another similar but potentially larger recall for July involving Children's Tylenol," said the e-mail. "WIS will look to explore next week the potential quantities in 400 geographically dispersed stores to 'assess' the quantities on the shelves ... this across Mass, grocery, drug and convenience (Wal-Mart is on the list.)
"After that assessment ... J&J could ask [us] to move ahead on a scope to purchase product that would make our Motrin project look small (thousands of locations vs. the 5000 [convenience] completing now."
Towns strongly questioned the e-mail today.
"This e-mail raises at least two significant questions. First, was Johnson & Johnson considering a phantom recall of children's medicine? Second, this e-mail is dated June 30, 2009, but your recall of millions of bottles of Children's Tylenol was not announced until April 30, 2009. Was Johnson & Johnson aware of problems with Children's Tylenol and other children's medicines months before it actually recalled these products."
Towns has asked Johnson & Johnson chairman-CEO William Weldon and Colleen Goggins, its worldwide chairman, to testify at the hearing.
Johnson & Johnson did not immediately return a call asking for comment.
Congressman questions if Johnson & Johnson tried to avoid recall