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updated 6/1/2010 3:34:42 PM ET 2010-06-01T19:34:42

Congressional Democrats are investigating an alleged "phantom recall" by Johnson & Johnson, in which the company hired a contractor to buy up defective painkillers instead of issuing an immediate recall.

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The company's handling of problems with its Motrin tablets came to light last week at a Congressional hearing to examine ongoing quality issues with J&J medications. Lawmakers began investigating the company over its most recent recall of more than 130 million bottles of children's medicine, some of which contained tiny particles of metal.

On Tuesday lawmakers announced an investigation into the company's handling of an older quality issue with more than 88,000 Motrin packets distributed in 2008.

In a May 28 letter obtained by The Associated Press, a House committee chairman asks J&J's CEO William Weldon to turn over information relating to the so-called phantom recall.

"It raises the question of whether Johnson & Johnson placed a higher priority on preserving the reputation of its Motrin brand than it did on consumer protection," states the letter from Chairman Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

'There must be no mention of this being a recall'
A memo titled "Motrin Purchase Project," obtained by congressional investigators instructs employees: "You should simply 'act' like a regular customer while making these purchases. There must be no mention of this being a recall of the product!"

J&J later recalled the medication in July 2009 after Food and Drug Administration officials learned about the contractor's activities.

Towns asks J&J to identify all J&J employees involved with the decision to repurchase the Motrin. He also asks whether the company has used contractors to repurchase products in other instances.

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J&J spokesman Jeffrey Leebaw said in an e-mail the company will "respond appropriately to the committee's request."

Last week FDA officials said they are considering criminal charges against the New Brunswick, N.J.-based company, which has been slow to fix manufacturing problems linked to three medicine recalls in the last eight months.

The most recent recall involved more than 40 varieties of children's medicine, including Tylenol, Benadryl, Motrin and other products that make up nearly 70 percent of the market for pediatric medications.

J&J has long enjoyed a sterling reputation for safety, earned in the 1980s for quickly pulling bottles of Tylenol that had been tainted with cyanide.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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