Shades of deja vu

Back in mid-January, McNeil Consumer Healthcare voluntarily recalled some of its over-the-counter Tylenol products after consumers noticed a “moldy, musty, or mildew-like odor” that became associated with “temporary and non-serious gastrointestinal events.”

Something like 70 people had nausea, diarrhea, stomach upsets, vomiting, and all that.

The company attributed the odor to a chemical sometimes applied to wood pallets that transport and store the packaging materials in a Puerto Rican plant.

Really? Today was the first I’d heard of it.

Admittedly, I don’t watch much TV but I do read the papers and the Interwebs, and I didn’t sleep through the last two months.

So I did some research.

A massive earthquake hit Haiti just about that same time.

News rightly focused on that story.

But another Tylenol recall was news too, wasn’t it?

For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to buy some Tylenol regular strength tablets, but I couldn’t find any.

You’d have thought I’d have been suspicious.

You’d have been wrong.

All I thought was that the shelf stockers were doing a poor job!

This morning, I cornered a not-too-busy pharmacist and learned why.


While this recall isn’t as serious as the 1982 version (when seven people in the Chicago area died after taking Tylenol laced with cyanide), it’s still frightening.

I mean, c’mon, who wants to get sick from something that’s supposed to help you?

But it’s interesting from a marketing point-of-view.

Decades ago, the company took only six days to pull 31 million bottles of Tylenol from store shelves. The move cost $100 million and threatened to ruin the company’s reputation.

People commended it as proof of corporate responsibility.

Tamper-evident packaging came into regular use, and the company fought back to regain the public trust.

Contrast then with now.

The first complaints came in in early 2008 yet it was last November before the company recalled anything — and then, it was only the arthritis pain medication with a red easy-open cap.

A month later, McNeil recalled more arthritis pain medication, finally expanding the recall to a broad variety of its OTC products.

The pharmacist I spoke to said it was doubtful the products would return to the shelves any time soon.

I hope he’s wrong. Tylenol is a good product, especially for those of us who can’t tolerate ibuprofen.

And I’m sorry, but the store brand just doesn’t work as well.