Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Tiger Brands pulls baby talcum powder over asbestos contamination concern

Tiger Brands pulls baby talcum powder over asbestos contamination concern
Johnson & Johnson's baby powder (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The packaged goods company says the recall was a precautionary measure and has urged customers to return products to retailers for a full refund. It insists, as does J&J, that there’s no evidence that talcum causes cancer – despite tens of thousands of lawsuits in the US and Canada.

Tiger Brands has recalled all its Purity Essentials Baby Powder products, instead of specific batch numbers, as a “precautionary measure” after trace levels of asbestos were detected in test samples from a batch of pharmaceutical-grade talcum powder used as raw material in the production of finished powder products. 

In a statement issued late on Wednesday, the packaged goods company said the recall does not affect its Purity Essentials Baby Cornstarch Powder or any other Baby Care products under the Purity brand. 

It urged consumers to return all Purity Essentials Baby Powder talcum products to retailers for a full refund.

Tiger Brands has been dogged by product quality and food safety scandals over the years, including the listeriosis outbreak which sickened more than 1,050 people and killed 218 (which is currently the subject of a drawn-out class action suit), bread price-fixing (for which it was fined R98.8-million by the Competition Commission), the 2014 recall of its Tastic Simply Delicious product over traces of the carcinogenic colourants methyl yellow and Sudan Red, which were found in instant rice and curry sauces made in a factory in India, and most recently the KOO and Hugo’s canned vegetable product recall (1 May 2019 to 5 May 2021) due to defective cans supplied by a packaging supplier.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) announced it would stop production and sales of its talc-based baby powder around the world from next year, more than two years after the pharmaceutical giant stopped sales of the product in the US and Canada, where it faces tens of thousands of lawsuits from women alleging its powder contained asbestos and caused them to develop ovarian cancer.

But the company stuck to its guns that decades of independent research show talcum powder is safe to use. In a statement on its website, J&J said: “As part of a worldwide portfolio assessment, we have made the commercial decision to transition to an all cornstarch-based baby powder portfolio. As a result of this transition, talc-based JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder will be discontinued globally in 2023.

“We continuously evaluate and optimise our portfolio to best position the business for long-term growth. This transition will help simplify our product offerings, deliver sustainable innovation, and meet the needs of our consumers, customers and evolving global trends. Cornstarch-based JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder is already sold in countries around the world…

“Our position on the safety of our cosmetic talc remains unchanged. We stand firmly behind the decades of independent scientific analysis by medical experts around the world that confirms talc-based JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder is safe, does not contain asbestos, and does not cause cancer.”

The BBC reported that in 2020, J&J said it would stop selling its talc baby powder in the US and Canada due to falling demand in the wake of “misinformation” about the product’s safety amid a number of legal cases.

In 2018, Reuters reported that J&J knew for decades that asbestos “lurked” in its talc products and that internal company records, trial testimony and other evidence showed that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, J&J’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos.

Tiger Brands held a similar line, telling Business Maverick that talc is a clay mineral that occurs naturally and is obtained from mining deposits. “Pharmaceutical-grade talc powder is used as raw material in the production of finished baby powder. In a powdered form, talc absorbs moisture, a characteristic that is useful in keeping skin dry. Talc does not routinely contain asbestos, but talc and asbestos may be found close to each other in nature when mined.”

The company confirmed that the pharmaceutical-grade talc powder used in the production is sourced from China by its South Africa-based third-party supplier.

Yesterday, Tiger Brands’ share price plummeted about 10% to R154.02, on news of the recall – its biggest loss in two years. 

Noel Doyle, CEO of Tiger Brands, told 702’s The Money Show last night that it would be deciding in coming weeks whether it would continue with manufacturing baby powder, but for now, all output has been suspended. He insisted there was no evidence that Tiger Brands had sold contaminated talcum in the past. 

These products furthermore comprised only about R7-million of Tiger Brands’ total annual sales of over R30-billion. “The scale of the cost is cold comfort,” he said, adding that they need to examine their internal processes and suppliers.

Tiger Brands’ share price got slammed yesterday as the news broke, closung 6.3% weaker. It made up some of that lost ground this morning, rising 1.7% to R158.7.  BM

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