No less than 37 cases of salmonella infections have been linked to Lactalis' milk in the last year alone, prompting a mass recall and factory shut down.
French dairy group Lactalis admits it may have inadvertently been poisoning babies for more than a decade with salmonella-tainted powdered milk.
The company has recalled 12 million tins from stores in France and more than 80 other countries after discovering salmonella bacteria in some of its baby formula last month at a factory in western France.
European disease control authorities have documented 39 cases of ‘Salmonella Agona’ between mid-August and December last year, with 37 from France and one each from Spain and Greece.
A similar outbreak occurred in 2005, with 141 cases reported.
Lactalis CEO Emmanuel Besnier told French newspaper Les Echos it was likely that the factory in Craon (which they took control of in 2006) has been the source, and the plant would be shut down.
Incredibly, Lactalis found traces of salmonella at the factory in August and again in November but did not share the findings with regulators, as it can avoid doing so if its own internal tests reveal its product remains uncontaminated.
A private laboratory was employed to conduct 16,000 tests on its product and gave the all clear.
“If the analysis of end-products had revealed the presence of Salmonella Agona, we would of course not have marketed the products and we would have avoided the crisis,” Lactalis said in a statement.
The government even inspected the factory in September, after the company had already discovered salmonella, but the area of the plant that produced the baby formula went unchecked.
“It can not be excluded that babies have consumed contaminated milk over this period (2005-2017),” Besnier said.
Indeed, The Institut Pasteur, a health research institute, said more than 200 babies in France had been contaminated with Salmonella Agona since 2005.
A victims’ association has scoffed at the number of cases Lactalis has been tied to, highlighting the extent of its operations.
“These are several hundred million boxes concerned and several hundred thousand tonnes of products sent to more than 80 countries,” it said in a statement.
This is a health scandal of unprecedented scale.
“This implies that the victims could have been much more numerous.”
Besnier says Lactalis is facing numerous law suits, and with its export licence being suspended indefinitely, will take a substantial financial hit.
“We can’t say definitively but (the cost) will be very high, several hundred million euros,” he said.
“This case has cost us our export licence for a still undetermined period. It’s the biggest crisis I’ve ever had to face as a boss.”
The victims’ association also plans to go after French supermarkets Leclerc and Auchan, which admitted to keeping Lactalis milk on the shelves after the recall had been issued.