India's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cancelled the plant's licence, effective 24 June, after 15 batches of baby powder products were found to have been sterilised by ethylene oxide, an irritant and cancer-causing component, through an unauthorised process.
Johnson & Johnson did not respond to Campaign Asia-Pacific's requests for comment.
Peggy Ballman, a J&J spokeswoman, said in a statement that the company is currently working with Indian regulators to resolve the issue. In the statement, the company said the sterilisation process in question, which was not registered with the local FDA, was used as an alternative on a one-time basis on a limited amount of baby powder. It gave no explanation why the alternative process was used.
“Within India, J&J has enjoyed equity that is unassailable and there is a degree of blind trust among young mothers when it comes to products with that label tag,” said Harish Bijoor, brand strategy specialist and CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults. “An event such as this is bound to rattle that trust.”
Bijoor said the impact of such an incident will not only be on this brand, but also every brand that uses ethylene oxide at large. “The consumer is quite irrational when it comes to issues such as these,” he said. “It’s important for the company to get very active and manage the crisis with transparency and consumer clarity.”
He suggested that J&J could publish a white paper on the issue, indicating clear references of the ethylene oxide residue, as well as issue an advisory and recall all batches that have hit the market.
“What is needed is a purge of all stock that can reach consumer homes,” he said. “And the next step would be to replace ethylene oxide as a sterilisation agent altogether. Ethylene oxide is now a bad word, in terms of consumer perception. One cannot risk its continued use in manufacture anymore.”
Last month, J&J launched its first corporate branding campaign in more than 10 years, "For all you love," focusing on the lasting family values. The New York Times noted that the campaign can be seen as J&J’s attempt to shore up its brand image after several quality-control problems in the past few years, including recalls of over-the-counter medications like Motrin, children’s Tylenol liquid and Benadryl.