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Generations of busy mothers have long blessed Mead Johnson & Co., maker of Pablum, Dextri-Maltose and a cradleful of other ready-mixes for plumping up baby. Last week many of the same mothers were buying a new Mead Johnson product, a powder called Metrecal, with an opposite aim: taking weight off themselves.

The powder, which is mixed by dieters with water or skim milk, is such a hot-selling item that it has already spawned some 40 imitations from Sears, Roebuck's Bal-Cal to Quaker Oats's Quota, just out this week. With Metrecal sales up to an annual rate of $40 million, Mead Johnson's 1960 gross is confidently expected by company officials to jump this year from $65 million to $100 million, the profits to double to $6 a share. To help keep ahead of the imitators, the company last week put on sale a canned liquid Metrecal, which is easier for paunch-conscious businessmen to keep unrefrigerated in a desk drawer for their noonday meal.

Creating an Illusion. For Mead Johnson & Co., founded in 1900, Metrecal is a new trick coaxed out of an old product. The man who turned the trick: President Daniel Mead Johnson, 46, grandson of Founder Edward Mead Johnson. D. Mead joined the company in 1936 as a New York salesman, in 1949 became vice president of sales and, in effect, chief executive. Concerned that the company was almost exclusively identified with baby needs, he set up a research department (1960 budget: $3,500,000) to develop a diverse line of Mead Johnson products.

One of the department's first finds was an invalid's food called Sustagen. A mix of skim-milk powder, soybean flour, corn oil, minerals and vitamins, Sustagen was designed for hospital patients unable to eat solid foods. It worked so well at giving patients the illusion of having eaten a solid meal and killing off between-meal hunger pangs that last year Mead Johnson decided to call it Metrecal and put it out as a weight-reducing food. The chief change was to recommend a limit of 900 calories (i.e., one 8-oz. can, dry weight) of Metrecal a day.

It Works. As an ethical drug company, i.e., prescription products mainly, Mead Johnson's first concern was to maintain the good will of doctors who prescribe most of its products. It wisely started advertising Metrecal in the American Medical Association Journal, and even though it subsequently broadened out into general magazines, it ended each ad with a plug to see "your physician" about weight problems. This gave Metrecal the respectability that most slimming concoctions lack, sent sales soaring. And it works.

To food and drug men, the big question is whether the vogue for "drink-a-meal" diet potions will turn out to be just another passing fad. Mead Johnson is certain that in Metrecal's case it will not. Metrecal is still the big seller over the imitations, despite the fact that they are cheaper. Mead Johnson, which has already trimmed its prices, can cut further, if necessary, and still make a good profit. The cost of making a can of Metrecal, which sells for $1.29, is less than 50¢.