Before I disappeared into the wilds of Camp Baby, I asked for your questions and comments for Johnson & Johnson.
On Thursday morning I got to share your concerns (which were very much in line with my own) to Johnson's executive Susan Nettesheim (former VP of Worldwide R & D for adult skin care, now the VP for Product Stewardship at Johnson & Johnson).
Although the current Director of R & D (Anna Prilusky) and the Manager of Global R & D for Johnson's Science and Technology were listed as panelists on the program, they inexplicably were not present during the conference. Susan Nettesheim fielded the all questions on parabens, phthalates, and dioxane 1,4.
And their answers were much in line with this corporate statement on phthalates. In paraphrase, it all sounded to me like, "Trust Us, We're Experts."
They obviously assumed we would come with some health questions. Prior to our Q & A opportunity, Nettesheim's presentation and that of Dr. Ellen Kurtz, Director of Scientific Affairs, Baby Care Franchise, J & J CPPW, there were plenty of anticipatory statements on the safety of these "carefully selected" substances. For instance, dioxane 1,4 apparently occurs in naturally in peanuts (ergo peanut butter) and although they freely concede that the class of phthalates does have problems they only use the one safe phthalate that is approved for use in the European Union where all products must pass the precautionary principle (which far exceeds US standards).
Phrases like "We have 100 years experience in baby products" were bandied about as were statements about their extensive product testing methods.
I was surprised by their responses and by their absolute confidence in the vetted safety of their products. Lots of people work at corporations, but these people (particularly the scientists) seemed to be true believers in their products, methodologies, and intentions. They don't just stand behind their products, they use them on their own children and give them to their friends and families. They did not seem to understand how we could have ongoing concerns in the face of their experience and research. Their responses to our probing incredulity seemed to me to be sincerely laced with tinges of confusion and hurt. The J & J employees we met seem to have strong pride of ownership in their products, so consumer uncertainty are taken as statements on their professional and personal integrity.
After the session ended, I felt like I should try again to communicate our concerns. I approached Susan Nettesheim during the break (thanks so much Stephanie for allowing my intrusion into your conversation already in progress). I told her about your questions and handed her a print copy of them to read later. It seemed important that someone in authority at Johnson's know that these are the questions naturally arising from online parents.
I mentioned that our generation (raised watching two-person garage startups like Apple and Microsoft outpace large, established organizations like IBM) tended to accept new companies more readily than previous generations and to view their products as innovative and improved. I added that the phrase "trust us" seems to intensify our skepticism rather than relieve it.
Susan Nettesheim pointed out that natural doesn't equate safe (a point I readily concede) and that we probably wouldn't be wise to purchase pharmaceuticals made in a garage startup (which, although true, is a little funny to me in light of the startup history (circa 1876) of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lily). Nettesheim also stated that J & J would hate to replace an existing, vetted, chemical they trust with a new one that may have unknown health consequences.
In and after the session, I specifically requested future production of unscented baby products (J&J currently only offers a few under their Aveeno line) as phthalates are most often found in fragrances. Apparently, J & J feels that the psychological effects of the scents are so strong that they are deeply reluctant to forgo the fragrances. As a child who didn't use their classic pink lotion because of sensitive skin, I reiterated that they're missing a market of people who dislike and/or cannot use scented products (including families with allergies and asthma). The cynic in me thinks that their dedication to fragrance may be a subtle but powerful form of branding as scent memories have overwhelming influence on decision making, but sometimes my inner cynic is paranoid.
Stephanie from about.com emphasized a need for transparency. I agreed, and stated that J & J needs to offer accessible scientific defenses when one of their ingredient falls under suspicion. For instance, the information of how much dioxane 1,4 by ppm (parts per million) is present in peanut butter would give me a scale to evaluate their safety claims. If peanut butter is around 20 ppm, then J & J's Watermelon Explosion Kids Shampoo at 10 ppm doesn't worry me as much, but if peanut butter is more like 0.5 ppm or less, I'm still pretty bothered. It's not enough to say that it's present in common foods and substances. I'm sure I've had trace amounts of lead in my drinking water, but that doesn't mean I want add a little lead to Ranger's breakfast cereal.
J & J also emphasized that most scientific tests study ingestion of the chemical compounds which is a more direct exposure than topical application. A recent study on phthalates in infant urine published in Pediatrics (Feb. 2008), however, suggests that topical exposure to baby products is a valid and growing health concern.
Later in the day, bloggers met in a smaller focus groups of 18 or 19 led and documented by one of J & J's many public relations/marketing firms. I repeated much of what I had said earlier to Susan Nettesheim and tried to say that J & J could earn our trust by producing a few unscented J & J branded products that don't use chemicals under scrutiny. To offer such alternative products would let consumers know they understand our fears and (even if they disagree with the science behind those fears) they will meet our needs as we see fit. Other moms asked that these products be made affordable. We were told the president of the company was in the room, but as the executives present (and there were many) were not introduced, I don't know which J & J company was represented in that manner.
Oh, and anastasiav, it turns out that although while J & J owns Baby Center, they leave it (like many of their companies) under independent governance and exert no editorial or advertising influence. They bought it when it fell into bankruptcy many years ago, but they want it to be able to facilitate open discourse.
Sorry about the length of this post, but there was no simple, succinct answer at Camp Baby. On an instinctual level, I liked the Johnson's people and particularly appreciate the time Susan Nettesheim took to talk with me. I don't think our Johnson's product use will change from periodic use of Original Desitin (which smells ghastly and probably involves no phthalates) and their lightly scented Foaming Shampoo (which we don't use every bathtime).
***This is the independent opinion of the geek parents at BabyToolkit.com, (c) 2006-2008. We aren't experts at this. Adrienne accepted an all-expenses paid 3 day trip to New Jersey from Johnson & Johnson's to Camp Baby a gathering of blogging moms and women influencing mom bloggers.