Salmonella contamination scandal in France

  • Transparency and food safety

The figures reveal the enormity of the scandal: 12 million boxes of Lactalis infant milk and 85 countries are now known to have been involved in the latest salmonella contamination scandal to hit France, since the news erupted in December 2017.  Scandal after scandal: horsemeat, fipronil, and now contaminated milk, which affects babies all over the world. The system supposed to protect us from health risks in food is obviously disfunctional and needs to be fixed urgently. 

The Craon factory in northern France at the epicenter of the Lactalis scandal had already been found culpable for a similar episode in 2005, in which more than 140 babies fell ill. According to the Pasteur Institute, the same bacteria is now causing problems 12 years later. For its part, Lactalis, which took over the factory in 2006, acknowledges that it detected salmonella in the factory during tests conducted in August and November 2017. The company maintains that it immediately acted to clean up the problem. When the French authorities sounded the alert after a worrying number of salmonellosis cases were reported at the beginning of December, Lactalis appeared surprised, and defended its record by saying that the 2,600 tests it had done since January 2017 had all been clear.

A veterinary inspection at the Craon site by the French Ministry of Agriculture in September 2017 "did not see anything", according to an article in the French newspaper, the Canard Enchainé. However, when the inspection services of the DGCCRF (control agency), which reports to the economy minister, inspected the factory in December 2017, it was found to be "plagued" with salmonella, according to the newspaper.

The consequence: some 20 babies less than six months old in eight different regions of France were initially known to be affected. This figure has now increased to 38 babies in ten regions, though according to the association representing Lactalis victims, the true number is likely to be much higher.

At the beginning of December 2017, the French ministers for Economy and Health therefore issued a product recall of batches of Lactalis baby milk products produced at the Craon factory. foodwatch wrote to Lactalis (letter is in French) and to the government on 12 December seeking answers in several area of concern. What inspections had been performed since 2005?  How long did Lactalis know that its products were putting babies at risk? Did it inform the authorities, as the law demands? What measures did the authorities take? No reply has been received to date. Publicly, the agriculture minister has stated that there has been no failure on the part of the government, but an inquiry is underway. 

Stuttering product recalls — at a whisper

A fumbled product recall has compounded the bungled inspection process. Five separate warnings, each with different information, were issued between the 2 December and the 12 January.  At first only 12 batches of baby milk were recalled (2 December), then more than 1,345 (21 December). Finally, all batches produced at the Craon site were to be pulled from the shelves (12 January) – a list of more than 3350 batches was released on Lactalis website on 17 January. It was left to the father of one victim to reveal that the list initially published on the 10 December had omitted five batches, which were then subsequently added.

In this scandal, like in many others, the list of recalled batches and the number of countries affected lengthened continiuously. The potential risk to consumers from the products in their cupboards, or worse, already given to their babies, has been inadequately publicized.

Products at risk still on sale in January 2018 – despite the recalls

On the 11 January 2018, the economy and finance minister Bruno Le Maire announced that 91 different establishments were still stocking boxes of baby milk that should have been recalled, including 30 major supermarkets, 44 pharmacies, two nurseries, 12 hospitals and three wholesalers.

A second wave of inspections, whose results were published on 26 January 2018, revealed that recalled products were still available in two supermarkets, 13 pharmacies, six shops, 61 on-line sellers, and a clinic.

As the alert reached consumers, they testified, proof in hand, that the big supermarkets were still selling potentially contaminated Lactalis products, despite the product recalls. In the week of the 8 January, French supermarket chains E.Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefour, Système U, Cora, Casino and Intermarché admitted that they had sold more than 2,000 recalled Lactalis products. This could not be a more serious matter. Like Lactalis, the distributors are legally obliged to ensure that they do not sell products that may cause health risks to their customers. As we wait for the courts to rule on the question, foodwatch has launched a petition demanding that the distributors be held responsible for their actions.

Saying sorry is not enough

The primary responsibility for this scandal obviously rests with Lactalis, a business whose lack of transparency is worthy of a secret cult. But in this scandal, the dysfunction and failure is everywhere: the producer, the distributors, and of course, the public authorities, who have all passed the buck, and refused to acknowledge their clear responsibility under both French and European law.

"Regrets" and "apologies" on the part of Lactalis and its distributors are insufficient. foodwatch has sent another email on the 19 January 2018 to the economy, agriculture and health ministers, and  remains on guard for the rights of consumers, pointing a finger at those responsible, and demanding that deterrent penalties be applied. It is essential to shine the light on this worldwide scandal, and above all, make sure that it never happens again.