J&J "let the public down" over recalls, CEO says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Johnson & Johnson disappointed consumers in recalling millions of bottles of popular children’s medicines, but products should be back on store shelves soon, the company’s chief executive said in documents released on Wednesday.

In prepared testimony released ahead of a congressional hearing, Chief Executive William Weldon said its McNeil consumer unit will start shipping nearly 1 million bottles of one product next week and hopes to distribute 4 million bottles by year’s end.

Although Weldon did not say which product would be back on the market, his announcement comes as a surprise since the recalled medicines were not expected back on store shelves at least mid-to-late 2011.

His statement comes ahead of Weldon’s first major public appearance since the recalls at a House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee panel on Thursday.

“We let the public down,” Weldon said. “We did not maintain our high quality standards, and as a result, children do not have access to our important medicines.

“I accept full accountability for the problems at McNeil, and I will take full accountability for fixing them.”

Since the April 30 recall that saw 40 popular medicines such as Children’s Tylenol pulled from store shelves, J&J has “undertaken significant improvements at McNeil’s facilities,” Weldon said, adding that it is spending $100 million to do so.

Morningstar analyst Damien Conover said the new shipment of recalled medicine is good news, given that Wall Street had not expected the affected liquid medicines back on the market until well into 2011.

J&J has said its Fort Washington, Pennsylvania plant, which made the 135 million bottles recalled in April, would not reopen until the second half of next year.

The expected distribution of 4 million bottles is “still kind of scratching the surface of where they were before but it’s a good start,” Conover said.

As far as the controversial so-called “phantom” recall last year of a faulty adult version of Motrin, J&J’s Weldon said the company “should have handled things differently.”

Lawmakers are expected to grill Weldon over the separate 2009 incident in which J&J’s McNeil hired outside contractors to purchase certain lots of Motrin that had problems dissolving. E-mails between the companies showed workers were told to act like normal customers to avoid attention.

At issue is whether McNeil acted with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval for the phantom recall rather than publicly issuing a formal recall.

The company has said there was no formal agreement with the FDA, but that the agency was aware of its actions. FDA has denied that claim, saying it called on the company to conduct a formal recall as soon as it learned of the purchases.

“I continue to believe that the FDA was informed of McNeil’s plans,” Colleen Goggins, outgoing chairman of J&J’s Consumer Group, said in prepared testimony also released on Wednesday by the committee.

McNeil “acted with good intentions” in hiring contractors to help pull the product off store shelves, but that was not the way J&J companies should handle defective products, Weldon said.

FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein also testifies on Thursday.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine and Bill Berkrot; Editing by Carol Bishopric, Bernard Orr