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Johnson & Johnson : J&J Recalls Baby Powder on Asbestos Concern -- 2nd Update

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10/18/2019 | 05:06pm EST

By Peter Loftus

Johnson & Johnson said it recalled one lot, about 33,000 bottles, of its Johnson's Baby Powder because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found a small amount of asbestos in a single bottle, a discovery likely to fuel existing concerns about the safety of the famous product.

The health-products company, which is well known among consumers for its namesake powder, said Friday it is recalling the bottles out of an abundance of caution despite the low levels of asbestos reported. J&J said it issued the withdrawal after receiving the FDA test report Thursday.

The recall comes at a vulnerable time for J&J, which has been fighting tens of thousands of lawsuits over its talcum powder, opioid drugs and other products. The stock fell 6.2% in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Admission of an asbestos taint could complicate J&J's defense against talcum-powder lawsuits in particular, since the company has been arguing that it hasn't detected asbestos in decades of testing.

The recall "is a negative for JNJ's reputation and potentially strengthens the plaintiffs' argument in the ongoing talc lawsuits," Wells Fargo analysts said in a research note Friday. The action probably increases the chances that J&J will settle its talcum-powder litigation, SVB Leerink analysts said.

J&J faces lawsuits from about 15,500 people in the U.S. claiming that use of J&J's baby powder and its other talc-containing products caused ovarian cancer and a rare cancer known as mesothelioma. Some of the lawsuits allege that asbestos in the talc products contributed to the cancer because asbestos is a known carcinogen.

While some of the lawsuits focus on the use of talcum powder manufactured many years ago, plaintiffs' lawyers say that their allegations aren't limited to the past and that the ongoing safety of J&J's talcum powder is an issue in the cases.

J&J says that numerous tests over the past 40 years showed no asbestos in its baby powder and that its talc products are safe and don't cause cancer. J&J has won some cases at trial but has lost some costly verdicts in other talc trials.

"Our talc comes from one of the cleanest mines in the world," which tests have shown to be asbestos-free, Susan Nicholson, vice president of women's health in J&J's medical safety division, said on a conference call Friday.

Plaintiffs' lawyers say that asbestos was present in J&J's talcum powder in greater concentrations many decades ago and that the concentrations dissipated as J&J changed sources for the mining of talc, a mineral. Yet the lawyers say more recent tests, including by experts they have hired, have shown trace amounts in products made since the 1970s. J&J has disputed the validity of those tests.

Ted Meadows, an attorney with Beasley Allen in Alabama who has represented plaintiffs in several talcum-powder trials, said the recall will strengthen his arguments at future trials.

"It's just confirmation of what we've been saying all along," he said. "It's contra to what J&J has been telling the public and telling juries across the country."

The recall will undermine J&J's argument in court that tests have shown its talcum powder to be free of asbestos, said Moshe Maimon, an attorney with Levy Konigsberg in New Jersey who has filed lawsuits alleging that inhalation of J&J's talcum powder caused mesothelioma.

"A federal regulatory body finding a baby powder product still on the market has asbestos in it is going to bode very badly for them," Mr. Maimon said.

The New Brunswick, N.J., company said it has a "rigorous testing standard in place to ensure its cosmetic talc is safe and years of testing, including the FDA's own testing on prior occasions -- and as recently as last month -- found no asbestos."

J&J said Friday the latest FDA test indicated the presence of chrysotile asbestos contamination in well under 1% of the sample from a single bottle. J&J said the bottle was purchased from an online retailer, but didn't identify the retailer. It said the lot was produced and shipped in the U.S. last year.

An FDA spokeswoman declined to comment immediately.

J&J said it is investigating the matter, and at this early stage it can't confirm whether the sample was taken from a bottle with an intact seal, or whether the product tested was authentic or counterfeit.

Colin Kellaher contributed to this article.

Write to Peter Loftus at peter.loftus@wsj.com

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