WASHINGTON — Johnson & Johnson has agreed to pay a $100,000 fine and change the labeling on its Reach toothbrush, to settle federal charges that the company improperly claimed the brush's plastic was treated to fight germs.
The Environmental Protection Agency said in a July 27 complaint that the toothbrush claimed to be ``made with Microban anti-bacterial plastic — a material proven to inhibit the growth of germs.''
Consumers interpret that to mean it protects their health, rather than protecting the product, said Mark Garvey, senior attorney with EPA.
The complaint against New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson is the latest charge brought by EPA against companies it says improperly claim that plastic cutting boards, toys and other consumer products contain additives that fight germs. Some companies, however, say the additives do protect people and complain that EPA does not have procedures to let them demonstrate that.
A Johnson & Johnson spokesman said the company approached EPA about nine months ago and began discussions about changing the labels. The Food and Drug Administration approved the toothbrush and did not consider the labels to be a public health claim, said Johnson & Johnson spokesman John McKeegan.
He said EPA's interpretation has been ``evolving,'' but the firm is not fighting the agency.
``They are saying we had done something wrong,'' McKeegan said. ``We are not going to argue that point. ... We are going to resolve this so we can concentrate on serving our customers.''
The company changed the labeling this spring to say the toothbrush has an ``antibacterial built-in to preserve the handle'' and that it has ``Microban antibacterial protection built in to inhibit the growth of bacteria that may affect the plastic in the handle. Microban does not protect you against disease. As always, rinse your toothbrush.''
The original labels Johnson & Johnson used contained wording recommended by the manufacturer of the additive, Microban Products Co. in Huntersville, N.C., McKeegan said.
Garvey said EPA started investigating the claims before Johnson & Johnson came to the agency.
EPA's regulatory approach also is starting to attract some attention on Capitol Hill, with the House's EPA budget including a warning to the agency to consider its approach to treated plastics carefully.
``It is the committee's hope that the final guidance will strike a better balance of protecting public health without disrupting commercial activity,'' according to a committee report that passed the House on July 30. The House report said it does think the EPA has the resources to evaluate the thousands of products such as pens, cutting boards and towels that use anti-microbials.
The Senate's EPA budget includes less-strident language that expresses concern with EPA's decision to change its policy on what companies are allowed to say about anti-microbials without conducting a full-blown rule-making effort.
The language is part of comments legislators routinely attach to the budget and is not legally binding, but a Washington lobbyist for Microban, Stacey Kane, said the language means EPA should ``move carefully.''