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Greg Webb
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Phantom Recall of Motrin by Johnson & Johnson Prompts State Legal Action

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If Rowan & Martin’s late-‘60s TV show, "Laugh-In", were still broadcast, we feel sure McNeil Consumer Health Care would win this month’s "Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award" for having achieved the laudable but dubious!

McNeil, the over-the-counter drug consumer product wing of Johnson & Johnson– the famed mass medical product manufacturer that became an empire by selling over-the-counter baby products such as baby powder, baby lotion and "No More Tears"™ baby shampoo—employed outside contractors to quietly buy back defective Motrin from pharmacy, department and grocery store shelves in 2009. But it wasn’t a product recall… exactly.

As the word of the product buy-back gradually circulated among stores and consumers, it appears McNeil customer relations veeps instructed contractors to indicate that they were simply performing an audit, trying to establish how many defective Motrin products remained on the shelves. In question were packages of product containing 8- and 24-count vials of Motrin which, according to McNeil, "failed to dissolve properly" and may not have provided the desired results to consumers. Motrin™ is a well-known and widely-used, patented, over-the-counter pain reliever.

The peculiar manner of the recall prompted the State of Oregon to sue J&J/McNeil for violating the state’s unlawful trade practices act by possibly misrepresenting the effectiveness and quality of the Motrin product. Oregon lawmakers dubbed the practice a "phantom" recall. The FDA became involved, suspecting that McNeil may have been trying to quash bad press that could have accompanied a formal voluntary recall. The New York Times, January 12, 2011, article by Natasha Singer and Reed Abelson, pointed out that this would have been just one more recall noting that "McNeil recalled more than 200 million product units last year, including different kinds of Tylenol, Motrin and Rolaids."

Voluntary recalls can be expensive to perform. They may generate bad press denting the product’s reputation and the company’s profit margin, but fines to the Company of up to $25,000 for each defective container of Motrin sold to consumers in Oregon could be expensive also. In business case study language, this would be a "loss-loss" situation.