Lactalis: Salmonella contamination scandal in France

  • Transparency and food safety

foodwatch steps up the pressure in the Lactalis scandal. All those responsible have been passing the buck since December, and the scandal remains mired in obscurity. Today, foodwatch and several parents open a case which affects everyone. The alliance will present strong evidence that all actors involved in this food scandal have failed to meet their obligations: the producer, the major supermarket chains, the public authorities and the laboratories have all demonstrably failed the consumer.

Paris, 14 February 2018. foodwatch, an NGO with particular expertise in food, has compiled a list of 12 serious breaches of the law which the protagonists must answer. For foodwatch, there is no doubt that this health scandal could and should have been avoided. Our failing system has risked the lives of dozens of babies in France and in the other 85 countries involved. The Lactalis affair is just one scandal too many.

No-one can claim they didn't know. And this morning the law firm TTLA will file incontrovertible legal evidence with the Paris prosecutor of the Republic in Paris to prove it, instructed by foodwatch and several parents of the affected babies. The objective is clear: to prevent this health scandal being buried, as has so often happened in the past, leaving the guilty unpunished, the facts brushed under the carpet, the political reaction feeble. The Lactalis affair is one scandal too many. And inaction could lead to fatalities.

"Everybody must respect the law. Both the European and French legislation impose numerous obligations on all of the players in the food chain. The producer, the distributors, the laboratories and, of course, the public authorities cannot ignore them. And yet, they have proved to be negligent, as the twelve breaches demonstrated by foodwatch make clear. They must face justice, to ensure that this never happens again", explains Karine Jacquemart, the director of foodwatch.

The charges brought range from marketing a product dangerous to health, failure to warn and withdraw the products, endangering others, committing an involuntary act on the physical integrity of a person, and exporting a food product harmful to health to another European Union country.

The dysfunction and failure affects all of the system

Primary responsibility in the affair obviously rests with Lactalis which has proved its amateurism, a criticism made by Bruno Le Maire, the economy minister. When Lactalis took over the Célia company in 2006, it knew that more than 140 babies had been affected by salmonella contamination at the Craon factory a year earlier. However in 2017, the Lactalis CEO Emmanuel Besnier, acknowledged that it was not possible to exclude that babies had been affected by contamination with the same bacteria for twelve years. The Institut Pasteur has confirmed that the same strain of salmonella was detected in both 2005 and 2017.

After Lactalis, the major supermarket chains bear a heavy responsibility. They continued to sell thousands of dangerous products despite the product recalls. A number of parents who have joined the foodwatch case had alerted the supermarkets last December. Will the supermarkets escape justice, as seems to happen with each scandal? foodwatch is concerned by the statement of the director of the agency for the repression of fraud (the DGCCRF) during a Sénat hearing on the 23 January, who confirmed that the distributors have "made amends." Their mea culpa does not mean that it should be forgotten that what they did was completely illegal.

The laboratories are also in the spotlight. Eurofins performed the Lactalis internal checks, and was obliged to communicate any result to the authorities which might give rise to the suspicion that there was a first category risk to health. We know that traces of salmonella were found at the factory as early as last summer. But we do not know if the Mayenne prefect received this information in order to take measures commensurate with the severity of the risk, because he has not deigned to reply to foodwatch's correspondence. The question therefore remains. Who failed? The laboratory, or the prefect?

foodwatch accuses the public authorities, who are ultimately responsible for the protection of consumers. They have failed in their obligations to prevent health risks, and have handled this major food crisis particularly incompetently. Consumers have been cheated, and children's lives endangered. And no tests for salmonella in baby milk were performed by the public authorities, according to the French newspaper the Canard Enchaîné.

Like foodwatch, the president of the association representing the families affected by the salmonella contamination (AFVLCS), Quentin Guillemain, calls for complete transparency. His association will lodge 30 supplementary cases against Lactalis and the major supermarket chains this Thursday 15 February. "We want justice to be done. Too many questions remain unanswered."

No legal deterrence

For foodwatch, this affair is all the more scandalous for being inevitable. "The actors in this affair have shown themselves to be irresponsible and they have not taken their obligations seriously. This is hardly a surprise. In scandal after scandal — horsemeat, eggs contaminated with fipronil, and so on - we have seen those involved get off scot-free. This is at the heart of the problem—the penalties should be deterrent and exemplary", insists Ingrid Kragl, the director of information of foodwatch.

Obscurity and impunity: enough!

The foodwatch legal action points the finger at the failures and inconsistencies of each and every player in the scandal. Lactalis claims that it was not obliged to pass on the information concerning the presence of salmonella in the factory, because it was "only in the environment" and not in its products, but foodwatch retorts that this is false. The Lactalis defence to justify its inaction is unsustainable. Under the law, Lactalis and the laboratory had a clear obligation to report this, from the moment they knew that there was a suspicion of a health risk.

foodwatch calls not only for an end to the obscurity and impunity, but also makes policy recommendations to avoid such scandals occurring in future: for transparency, effective penalties, and the creation of an independent agency.

Press contact

If you are a journalist and have questions concerning this, please contact Ingrid Kragl, information director of foodwatch France, on +33 (0) 6 01 23 12 46, email ingrid.kragl@foodwatch.fr