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French prosecutors to probe Lactalis baby milk contamination

French prosecutors have opened a probe into salmonella contamination and a major international recall of baby milk produced by dairy giant Lactalis, a legal source told AFP on Tuesday.

French prosecutors to probe Lactalis baby milk contamination
The Celia dairy company's infant milk factory owned by the LNS Lactalis group in Craon. Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP

The investigation will focus on possible charges of causing involuntary injuries and endangering the lives of others but also possible cheating and failures in carrying out a product recall, the source said.

Reports of some 20 children falling sick after consuming Lactalis powdered milk — sold under several different brand names in France and abroad, including Picot and Milumel — first emerged in early December.

The company, one of the world's largest producers of dairy products, ordered a first major recall on December 10 of nearly 7,000 tonnes of packets produced by a contaminated factory in Craon, northwest France.

At the time, it said it did not know how much of the potentially dangerous powder had been consumed or was in shops around the world and it announced a second, wider recall on December 21st.

The group has now recalled all of its production from the Craon factory since February 15th, blaming the contamination on renovation work carried out earlier this year.

Lactalis could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The product withdrawals have affected consumers in countries as far afield as China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Britain and Sudan, underlining the company's global reach and the difficulty in tracing all the potentially at-risk powder.

Salmonella symptoms include severe diarrhoea, stomach cramps and vomiting. The illness — caused by intestinal bacteria from farm animals — is especially dangerous for the very young and elderly because it can cause severe dehydration.

The baby milk industry was shaken by a huge scare in China in 2008 when local manufacturers were found to be bulking their product with an industrial chemical.

Six babies died and around 300,000 others were made ill.

The scare in the vast and growing Chinese market benefited rival companies such as Lactalis and fellow French giant Danone, which were more expensive but were seen by consumers as safe and high quality.

Sixteen babies hospitalised

A total of 35 infants have fallen sick with salmonella poisoning in France since August including 16 who were hospitalised, an unusually high number that sparked fears of an epidemic.

Of these, 31 were found to have consumed Lactalis products from its factory in Craon, which was shut down on December 8 for a major cleaning.

The company believes the salmonella outbreak can be traced to an evaporation tower used to dry out the milk at the factory it acquired in 2006.

The plant had suffered salmonella contamination the previous year.

Quentin Guillemain, the father of a three-month-old baby who drank the milk but did not fall ill, has filed a complaint against Lactalis and the UFC Que Choisir consumer association announced plans to do so.

Guillemain has set up a support group for the families of infants sickened by the milk.

The legal probe was opened by prosecutors in Paris specialised in public health issues.

By Mehdi Cherifia

SALMONELLA

‘Hundreds’ of lawsuits filed over French dairy giant salmonella: association

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against French dairy giant Lactalis by families who say their children got salmonella poisoning after drinking powdered milk made by the company, an association representing victims said Friday.

'Hundreds' of lawsuits filed over French dairy giant salmonella: association
Photo: AFP

The announcement came as economy minister Bruno Le Maire said Lactalis would have to extend its product recall to all milk products at the affected production site.

“I've filed a lawsuit. Hundreds of other families have already filed suits across France,” said the association's president Quentin Guillemain during a press conference.

“Several hundreds more want to file suit, and will do so in the coming days,” he said.

So far French officials have reported 35 cases of children getting salmonella poisoning from the contaminated milk powder, while one case has been reported in Spain and another is being investigated in Greece.

Asked about the discrepancy between the reported cases and the number of lawsuits, Guillemain said he believed the authorities were underestimating the number of cases.

“Unfortunately we have not been able to compare our own figures” with those of health authorities, he said, “and today I can't tell you how many victims there are exactly”.

He estimated that “tens of millions of cans” of powdered baby milk, exported to 66 countries, may have been contaminated by the salmonella outbreak discovered in December at Lactalis's site in Craon, northwest France.

Le Maire announced the extended recall after meeting with the company's chief executive Emmanuel Besnier, saying he had asked the company to “make an effort at more transparency”.

Besnier himself did not make a statement, as several officials have pressed him to do given the public alarm and chaotic recall efforts so far.

Health inspectors have discovered, for example, that several retailers, including supermarkets and pharmacies, had continued to keep the affected products on their shelves despite the recall order.

On Thursday, a spokesman for Lactalis, Michel Nalet, apologised once again to parents, adding that the firm was working “in perfect collaboration” with French officials to contain the outbreak.

The claim was rebuffed by Le Maire, who told French television: “If there had been perfect collaboration, I wouldn't have had to sign an order on December 9th demanding the recall of more than 600 shipments of baby milk”.

Of the 18 children hospitalised in France, all have been released and are doing fine, France's public health agency said, while the condition of the children in Spain and Greece has not been disclosed.

READ ALSO: French food safety inspectors 'missed salmonella at baby milk plant'