PARIS (Reuters) - French dairy group Lactalis may have been producing salmonella-tainted baby milk for more than a decade, its CEO was quoted as saying on Thursday, adding the growing food safety crisis was likely to cost the company hundreds of millions of euros.
Lactalis, one of the world’s largest dairy groups, has recalled 12 million tins in France and around the world after babies were taken ill last year after drinking salmonella-contaminated milk produced at a factory in western France.
The same strain of salmonella was also responsible for some infections in 2005, Lactalis Chief Executive Emmanuel Besnier told French newspaper Les Echos, adding it was possible the factory was the source for these cases, and others since.
In 2005, the factory in Craon was owned by Celia, a company taken over by Lactalis in 2006.
“It can not be excluded that babies have consumed contaminated milk over this period (2005-2017),” Besnier said.
The Institut Pasteur, a French organisation that monitors micro-organisms and diseases, said more than 200 babies in France had been contaminated with “Salmonella Agona” since 2005, including 38 between mid-August and December last year, as well as 25 between 2006 and 2017 and 141 in 2005.
French health authorities have said 36 of the 38 cases last year were clearly linked to Lactalis milk, as well as one in Spain and a suspected one in Greece. A group representing victims’ families say at least 10 more cases are unaccounted for.
Besnier said Lactalis was permanently closing one of its facilities at the Craon plant due to the outbreak.
He also questioned the effectiveness of 16,000 tests performed by an unidentified private laboratory last year that had revealed nothing.
“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, referring to the laboratory tests.
The victims’ association said it had read Besnier’s comments with “dismay”.
“These are several hundred million boxes concerned and several hundred thousand tonnes of products sent to more than 80 countries. This is a health scandal of unprecedented scale,” it said in a statement.
“This implies that the victims could have been much more numerous.”
Besnier said the scandal was “the biggest crisis I’ve ever had to face as a boss.”
“We can’t say definitively but (the cost) will be very high, several hundred million euros,” he told Les Echos.
“This case could cost us our export licence for a still undetermined period,” he added.
Besnier did not give details of what the costs would be.
He said a lot of the milk recalled since early December had been consumed and that returns were likely to amount to less than half of total volumes.
French supermarket chains Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefour (CARR.PA) and Systeme U have all acknowledged that some of the baby milk remained on their shelves after the recall.
The victims’ association’s lawyer said families intended to file lawsuits against Auchan and Leclerc. Besnier said Lactalis was the target of multiple legal complaints.
Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Leigh Thomas; Editing by Vyas Mohan and Mark Potter