Johnson & Johnson is treating Chinese customers like “second-class” citizens, say the Chinese media

Sensitive skin and sensitive media in China.
Sensitive skin and sensitive media in China.
Image: AP Photo
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China’s food and drug safety regulator is taking Johnson & Johnson to task with claims that the US company has a shoddy quality-control system (link in Chinese). The Chinese media has piled on, alleging that J&J treats its Chinese customers like “second-class” citizens. While J&J has held 51 global product recalls since 2005, China has been excluded from 48 of them, according to Xinhua, citing only “media reports” (link in Chinese).

“Any drugs recalled outside China must be recalled in China as well,” the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) statement said (link in Chinese). The statement made no mention of the global recall statistic, noting only that since 2008, J&J’s Chinese division has recalled 33 products in mainland China.

(J&J didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. We’ll update when we hear back from it.)

The Chinese allegations come after J&J’s South Korean unit recalled bottles of Children’s Tylenol due to high levels of acetaminophen; the Shanghai branch of J&J says the product sold in China was manufactured in China and is safe (link in Chinese). Xinhua reports that “the general public is commonly suspicious in this instance” (link in Chinese).

This might sound a little rich coming from China, whose commitment to safety standards has sent its citizens on a global infant formula importing binge. Or, for that matter, from a country that refused responsibility for a slew of tainted food and drug incidents, some of them fatal, as in the case of 81 Americans who died (link in Chinese) after using a contaminated blood thinner.

But as Apple’s tiffs with the Chinese government also show, the Chinese government can make things very unpleasant for foreign companies. And, whether influenced by propaganda bureau directives or not, the media isn’t beyond stirring public ire.

This isn’t the first time J&J has come under fire from the Chinese government. In 2011, Xinhua, the state mouth piece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), told J&J to “practice morality” after a US group alleged that Johnson’s Baby Shampoo contained formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic. In a similar incident in 2009, the regulator eventually concluded that the baby products in question were safe. That, however, occurred weeks after a report from a US non-profit set off a panic that swept online chat rooms frequented by young mothers. Even after J&J China said the products were safe (link in Chinese), the China Daily ran headlines like “‘Tainted’ baby shampoo still on shelves” and reported on findings of a study conducted by Chinese media revealing that J&J products caused rashes, hair loss and birthmarks (link in Chinese). The resulting public hysteria eventually led grocery stores to pull J&J products from the shelves.

That incident shows just how easily the Chinese media can catch corporate PR flat-footed, even when the company is in the right.

And foreign food and drug companies—particularly those dealing with infant health—are now even more vulnerable to both government and media attacks. The government has a track record for publicizing alleged breaches of safety standards among foreign companies. The new administration has stepped up crackdowns on food safety and has repeatedly stressed that it will tighten supervision of standards. Given that it’s staking its reputation on an issue of such great public sensitivity, it’s won’t miss an opportunity to tar and feather foreign companies. It has struggled to burnish the safety reputations of domestic companies. Tarnishing those of foreign companies with complicated supply chains will have a much higher hit rate, as its swipes at Yum Brands over food safety concerns might suggest.