Tylenol recall sparks battle over blame

By Parija Kavilanz, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- More than a week after a big recall of tainted Tylenol and other non-prescription drugs, a battle has erupted between drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and makers of a shipping component the company blames for the problem.

An undisclosed number of containers of Tylenol, Motrin and other over-the-counter drugs were recalled earlier this month after consumers complained of feeling sick from an "unusual" odor.

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McNeil, a division of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ, Fortune 500), said the smell was caused by a chemical that was derived from a treatment used on wooden pallets that store packaging materials and transport consumer products. -- implying that the pallets were the cause of the chemical contamination.

The wooden pallet industry is crying foul.

In a letter sent Jan. 22 to Johnson & Johnson's CEO William Welson, and obtained by CNNMoney.com, the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA) said McNeil's statement has "caused immense damage to the industry."

The chemical in question is called "2,4,6-tribromoanisole" or TBA. It results from a breakdown of another chemical called "tribromophenol" or TBP, which is used in some countries as a preservative on wooden pallets But TBP is not approved for use in the United States.

"There are more than 1.2 billion pallets in service in the United States each day. To the best of our knowledge, wood pallets and containers have never been the source of either TBA or TBP," NWPCA president Bruce Scholnick said in the letter.

"It appears McNeil/Johnson & Johnson has used its immense stature to publicly express highly irresponsible and defamatory statements toward the wood pallet industry," Scolnick wrote in the letter.

"McNeil/Johnson & Johnson's conduct has damaged the wood pallet industry's reputation and business relationships," he added. "More importantly [it] has spread factually unsupported and misleading statements which have needlessly alarmed the public."

Since the recall, Scholnick said other drugmakers -- including Abbott Laboratories (ABT, Fortune 500) and Bayer -- and several food suppliers that use wooden pallets to transport their goods from factories to stores were demanding that pallet suppliers provide additional certification to validate that the wood was not tainted with TBA.

This is an easier process if it's a new pallet, because the pallet supplier can go to the lumber supplier to get that certification, he said

"But it's extremely difficult and expensive to get this certification when the pallet is a recycled or resold unit, because you have no way of knowing whether the wood used in its production was treated with TBP," Scholnick said.

Consequently, Scholnick said the industry wants McNeil to show "definitive evidence that the source of the contamination was TBA."

"We also insist that you provide technical and scientific theory as to how this chemical could spread from a tertiary packaging component to a primary packaging component through various layers of cardboard and plastic packaging surrounding the primary product," the letter said.

If McNeil is unable to provide the evidence, Scholnick's group said it will demand that the company retract its previous accusations against the wooden pallet industry and seek damages.

In an e-mailed comment, Johnson & Johnson spokesman Marc Boston said "We stand by the findings of our investigation, and we plan to respond directly to the Association."

The Food and Drug Administration, which issued a warning letter to McNeil and has given the company 15 days to investigate the cause of the contamination, said its own investigation into the recall is "ongoing."

"We don't have anything further to report at this time," said FDA spokesman Christopher Kelley. To top of page

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