Bacteria Contaminated Cosmetics Quietly Pulled from Shelves

by Vins

When Vogue International pulled over 200,000 bottles of OGX Biotin and Collagen Conditioner in May 2014 due to contamination by Burkholderia cepacia, a bacteria that can cause life-threatening respiratory infections for those with weakened immune systems, the only form of notice came from the FDA website, four months after the recall. When Kutol Products Co., a company responsible for two of seven major cosmetic recalls this year, quietly pulled 4,500 units of lotion from shelves, again, no notice was found save on the FDA website. These lotions were contaminated by P. aeruginosa and P. putida, types of bacteria that can cause inflammation, pneumonia, blood infections, and even sepsis, a potentially deadly full-body inflammation.

According to Deepashri Varadharajan’s report for Al Jazeera English, due to lax industry regulations, cosmetic firms are not required to publicly announce recalls. Though the FDA can “request” for a company to pull contaminated products, the FDA possesses no actual authority over the company’s actions. The FDA can, however, issue a public notice if they deem it necessary.

Unfortunately, in the cases of Vogue International and Kutol, the FDA did not think that contamination by potentially life threatening bacteria warranted notification. Though this recall was classified as a “Class II” — indicating the product “may cause temporary or medically reversible adverse health consequences” — and hence did not require public notice according to FDA guidelines, consumers still have a right to know. Without widely broadcasted notices from either cosmetic companies or the FDA, the health of millions of Americans with weaker immune systems are at risk, especially as recalls can take years.

When Vogue International and Kutol let incidents of product contamination slip by the public eye to avoid “bad press”, there was no corporate media coverage whatsoever, as of October 31, 2014. The FDA website was the only available source of “public” information. On the other hand, as Varadharajan reports, when cosmetic companies choose to go public with recalls, as with Nutek Disposable Inc.’s case, corporate media coverage surges. In regard to Nutek Disposable Inc.’s recall of contaminated baby wipes on October 3, 2014, a multitude of corporate news sources, such as ABC, CNN, Huffington Post, and CBS, all covered the story within the same month. Given the unlikelihood that people actually regularly visit the FDA website, media coverage is the only other option for consumers to determine the safety of cosmetic products. Unfortunately, when cosmetic companies choose to stay silent, the media stays silent as well.

Source: Deepashri Varadharajan, “Bacterial Contamination in Cosmetics Eludes Public Eye,” Al Jazeera English, October 29, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/10/29/cosmetics-recallbacterialcontamination.html.

Student Researchers: Inga Van Buren and Rachel Song (Pomona College)

Faculty Evaluators:  Andy Lee Roth (Pomona College)