Tylenol, Tampons & Other Famous Product Recalls

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Ford just announced it is recalling over 4.5 million vehicles due to a faulty switch that can overheat and catch fire. Of course, cars aren't the only things that get recalled. Every year, dozens of foods, drugs, and consumer products get yanked from shelves for some reason or another. Here are a few surprising or particularly large product recalls:

1. Tylenol (1982)

In the fall of 1982, taking a Tylenol was the absolute worst thing a Chicagoan who felt a little under the weather could do. Why? Because the capsules were laced with cyanide. Someone had apparently removed the painkillers from store shelves, poisoned them, and then returned them to kill unsuspecting shoppers.

Johnson & Johnson, which made Tylenol, was at a loss for what to do in the face of a national fury over poisoned medicine. Eventually the company recalled every single bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol from the nation's pharmacies at a cost of $100 million. On top of that, J&J swapped out any capsules consumers already had in their medicine cabinets.

While authorities never caught the killer, some good did come from this tragedy. The poisonings sparked the advent of tamper-evident packaging for over-the-counter drugs, so we can all feel a little safer with our Tylenol today.

2. Olive Oil (1993)

The extra-virgin olive oil we love to use for salad dressings and other delicacies tastes great, but it comes at a price: it's expensive and difficult to make. Since most palates can't pick up subtle differences in the quality of the oil they pick up at the supermarket, there's a powerful incentive for unscrupulous producers to make an easy buck by diluting their "extra virgin" olive oil with much cheaper products.

Although most countries supposedly monitor the purity of their olive oil exports, in practice this regulation can be somewhat lax, which has resulted in recalls from time to time. In 1993, the FDA forced Cincinnati company Rubino U.S.A. to recall all of its shipments of "olive oil," which as it turned out were just regular old canola oil. Other grocery chains have been hit since.

3. Rely Tampons (1980)

relyIn 1975, Procter & Gamble released a new brand of tampon called Rely, which it marketed with the slogan "It Even Absorbs the Worry." Unlike traditional cotton tampons, Rely's wares were made with a cellulose derivative and compressed beads of polyester. As a result, Rely's product was far more absorbent than the average tampon; a Rely could absorb up to 20 times its own weight in fluid.

All of that absorbency sounded like a selling point when Rely hit the market, but it turned out there's such a thing as a too absorbent tampon. The hyper-absorbent tampons severely dried out users' vaginas, which led to flourishing bacterial growth, abrasions, and toxic shock syndrome.

By 1980, the CDC had uncovered the mechanism behind all of these cases of toxic shock syndrome, and Procter & Gamble initiated a voluntary recall of all Rely tampons on the market, a move that cost the company $75 million. The episode didn't scare P&G out of the tampon market permanently, though; in 1997 it bought market leader Tampax for a reported $2 billion.

4. Burger King's Poké Balls (1999)

In late 1999, Burger King ran a $22 million kids' meal promotion to give away Pokémon toys. Each of the collectible critters came in one of the game's signature Poke Balls, a small egg-like container. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparently that while the Pokémon figures themselves were perfectly safe, the plastic balls posed a serious suffocation risk to kids. Due to the ball's shape and size, it fit perfectly over the nose and mouth of small children.

A 13-month-old girl in California suffocated on a ball in December 1999, and reports of other children having near misses with the balls led to a massive recall of the containers. The company spent millions on the recall campaign and ended up destroying over 30 million of the toys.

5. Hydroxycut (2009)

hydroxycut
You can't watch TV without seeing an ad for Hydroxycut, a nutritional supplement that promises to help rotund viewers easily shed pounds of flab. Earlier this year, though, the Food and Drug Administration gave Hydroxycut quite a punch in the well-defined stomach when it announced the supplement could cause serious health problems, including jaundice, seizures, and liver failure.

With potentially lethal side effects like these, Hydroxycut's manufacturer, the Canadian company Iovate Health Sciences Inc., had to recall all of its products. The company didn't stay out of the weight-loss game long, though; it quickly introduced a new-and-improved product, Thermogenic Hydroxycut Advanced.

6. Sony Laptop Batteries (2006 & 2008)

fireIf you owned a laptop in 2006, chances are you had to spend some time reading serial numbers to make sure your battery wasn't a fire or explosion risk. The Sony lithium ion batteries in question began showing a tendency to overheat, which could damage users' laptops or start small fires. In August 2006, Dell and Apple began recalling Sony batteries that were at risk for exploding or igniting, and by the end of the year over 8 million total batteries were part of the recall.

One would hope that Sony would have figured out how to keep its batteries from combusting after such a giant recall, but apparently not. In late 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that Sony was recalling another 100,000 laptop batteries for similar reasons. [Image credit: softpedia.com.]

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October 20, 2009 - 8:12am
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