French dairy group Lactalis is recalling 12m boxes of powdered baby milk in 83 countries over a salmonella outbreak, the company’s CEO said on Sunday.
Emmanuel Besnier, the scion of the secretive family behind one of the world’s biggest dairy groups, was speaking publicly for the first time since an outcry erupted over claims the company hid the outbreak at a plant making the product.
“We must take account the scale of this operation: more than 12m boxes are affected,” he said, adding that distributors would no longer have to sort through the produce to find the contaminated powder. “They know that everything has to be removed from the shelves.”
Besnier was summoned to the French finance ministry on Friday. After the talks, the finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said the company would recall all infant formula milk products made at its Craon factory that were still in warehouses and on store shelves, regardless of the date of manufacture.
“The aim of this radical step is simple: to avoid delays, problems in sorting batches and the risk of human error,” Le Maire said.
The tough measure reflects high-level frustration at the botched handling of the crisis after France’s biggest supermarkets – including Carrefour, Auchan and Leclerc – this week said that some Lactalis products subject to recalls in December still found their way onto their shelves.
“I cannot guarantee that right now there isn’t a single tin of baby milk left on a shelf in a giant warehouse or in a pharmacy,” Le Maire said. “I think this [further recall] is the strongest guarantee we can give.”
Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against the group by families who say their children got salmonella poisoning after drinking powdered milk made by the company.
So far, French officials have reported 35 cases of infants getting salmonella from the powder, while one case has been reported in Spain and another is being investigated in Greece.
An association representing victims says the authorities are underestimating the number of cases.
Besnier promised compensation for all the families affected and said that the consequences of this health crisis for consumers, including babies under six months, were at the forefront of his mind.
“There are complaints and there will be an investigation with which we will fully collaborate. We never thought to act otherwise,” Besnier said.
Created in 1933 by Besnier’s grandfather, Lactalis has become an industry behemoth with annual sales of some €17bn (£15bn). Its products include Président butter, Société roquefort, and Galbani ricotta and mozzarella in Italy. It has 246 production sites in 47 countries.
Two of its brands, Picot and Milumel baby milk, were the subject of chaotic international recalls issued in mid-December after dozens of children fell sick.
The scandal deepened this month when French investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported that state inspectors had given a clean bill of health to the Lactalis site in Craon, northwest France, in early September.
They failed to find the salmonella bacteria that had been detected by Lactalis’s own tests in August and November, which were not reported to the authorities. The company said it was not legally bound to report the contamination.
Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report.