Comparing Pills to Peanuts

As the Toyota recall rages on, it is clear that this is one for the record books. While most Americans have forgotten about tainted tomatoes and spinach, certain recalls seem to have staying power years after the problem has been corrected. In terms of epic recalls, many cite the Tylenol recall of 1982. Admittedly, I wasn't an avid news watcher in 1982 (I was more concerned with cartoons at this time, if you get my drift), but I was able to find plenty of information on the incident.

What I found most remarkable was that back in 1982 – before we had lightening fast methods of disseminating information (i.e. pre-Twitter. iPhones and internet entirely), before companies had expensive, high tech recall systems in place, and before recalls were an expected part of daily life – Johnson & Johnson was still able to respond quickly to the life-threatening situation. The company's efforts, which included "grassroot" actions such as contacting individual hospitals and having police drive through the streets in Chicago issuing warnings over loudspeakers, may seem rudimentary in today's overly sophisticated world, but in 1982 they saved people's lives.

Because they had no idea of the magnitude or source of the contamination, J&J issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol products; within days they had pulled an estimated 31 million bottles from circulation, as well as offered consumers tablet-form Tylenol to replace the recalled capsules.

Not only did Tylenol survive the recall, they flourished. Capsules were reintroduced to the market a month later (in new, safety-sealed packages) and the company regained market share and, most importantly, the trust of consumers in less than a year, going on to be the most popular over-the-counter analgesic in the U.S.

Fast forward to a more current recall: in early December 2008, the FDA and CDC began investigating the source of contamination in peanut products that had been linked to a salmonella outbreak. It was not until mid-January that the FDA linked the tainted peanut butter to the Peanut Corporation of America's Blakely, GA facility. Four days later, PCA announced its first recall. As time went on, the recall expanded. By February 2009, Peanut Corporation of America had filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.

So why did this recall take so long? And how is it possible that our recall response can be slower in 2009 than it was in 1982? Some critics want to blame the FDA. They say that since the FDA does not have mandatory recall authority over food, the agency has to sit around and wait for an affected company's approval before announcing recalls. In the case of PCA, critics are also wondering why it took the FDA so long to determine where the salmonella was coming from and why all the initial infractions discovered at the plant prior to the recall were not dealt with adequately. Other critics want to blame our modern day food industry. They claim the industry has become so mechanized, so impersonal and so filled with red-tape, that it no longer cares about the health of consumers. Would the legal department of any modern-day company allow the police to drive through the streets and announce a recall over the loudspeaker? Doubtful.

I realize I might be comparing apples to oranges here (or pills to peanuts). Arsenic is obviously a lot more life-threatening than salmonella. I also realize that Johnson & Johnson probably had a lot more resources at its disposal than the Peanut Corp. of America did. And I don't think we are ever going to entirely eliminate the chance of recalls in the food industry, or any industry for that matter. But I do think that economic pressures can, at times, cause companies to view recalls as business expenses and legal liabilities, rather than life-threatening emergencies, and this has skewed the way some companies handle these incidents.

As evidenced by Johnson & Johnson, perhaps the way in which a company chooses to respond to a recall holds more weight with consumers than whether or not the recall happens to begin with. People seem to be able to forgive actions, even if they are faulty; it's inaction that is difficult to absolve.

What do you think? Let me know at