Paris, 12 December 2017. Millions of boxes and at least 7000 tonnes of Lactalis baby milk may have been contaminated with salmonella, according to the French Minister of Health, in a scandal that now affects 45 countries. The French government investigated the problem at the beginning of December, and rapidly established that "the measures taken by the company were insufficient to avoid the risk of contamination of the products, which are marketed to the parents of babies and toddlers." On Sunday 10 December, France's health and economy ministers suspended the marketing and export of several key infant products in the Lactalis range, and published a list of more than 600 batch numbers for products that must be recalled, which have already been exported all over the world.
How did we get here? The finger of blame has already been pointed at the factory in Craon in northern France, after a similar scandal in 2005, in which 20 babies fell ill. At that time it was owned by the Célia group, and was subsequently acquired by Lactalis. Twelve years later, foodwatch finds that the Lactalis group has apparently not fulfilled its clear obligation under both French and EU law to ensure that the products it brings to market are safe, and present no risk to the health of the consumer.
According to Lactalis, the contamination probably occurred in one of its drying towers between the 1 and 6 May 2017. But the company also admitted to positive tests for salmonella in July and November. So how long did Lactalis know that its products were putting babies at risk? Did the company do the regular inspections obliged by the law? What were the results? Were the authorities informed, in accordance with the prevailing regulations? And if so, how was it possible for such significant contamination to develop? So many questions remain unanswered. Lactalis „regrets“ seem rather inadequate in the face of the serious legal obligations weighing upon it.
foodwatch France director, Karine Jacquemart says: „Forty-five countries are now affected by this scandal. The source of the contamination must be brought to light, those responsible identified, and legal sanctions applied. foodwatch has written to both the company and the ministers concerned to demand complete transparency in all aspects of the scandal, which could have, and should have, been avoided.“
The fact that initially only 12 batches were signalled as contaminated, then more than 600; that only ten countries were initially alerted by the European RASFF system, then forty-five, must be seen as a worrying signs that the food traceability system is still not fit for purpose, as Foodwatch has already alleged during the fipronil scandal.
Finally, why did it take until the 4 December for the French authorities to pass the information to the European alerting system? How were the other countries, all over the world, informed of the risk to the health of babies?
Sources and links
In March 2005 French authorities recalled milk marketed under the Picot brand, after a large number of contamination events affecting children between the ages of one month and two years old. (French)
foodwatch's letter to Lactalis (French)