Lactalis to withdraw 12m boxes of baby milk in salmonella scandal

Emmanuel Besnier, chief executive of French dairy giant, says all products from contaminated factory will be recalled

The head of a French dairy giant at the centre of an international salmonella scandal has promised to withdraw 12m boxes of powdered baby milk from the supermarket shelves of 83 countries.

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 salmonella outbreak at a plant making the product.

He said all Lactalis products from its Craon factory in Mayenne were being recalled regardless of the date of manufacture.

“We must take account the scale of this operation: more than 12 million boxes are affected,” he said on Sunday. “They know that everything has to be removed from the shelves.”

The move comes after accusations that the company had sought to hide the discovery of salmonella at the factory and bungled handling of the subsequent crisis, which Besnier has denied. The French authorities are also under fire for their handling of the health scare.

Salmonella infections can be life-threatening and the families of three dozen children who have fallen sick in France as a result of the contaminated baby milk have announced a raft of lawsuits.

So far a total of 37 cases of infants suffering salmonella after consuming the powder have been reported, 35 in France, one in Spain and another suspected case in Greece. A victims’ association said this was the tip of the iceberg and the authorities were underestimating the number of cases.

The move came after Besnier was summoned to the French finance ministry on Friday and after several bungled operations to clear supermarket and chemist shelves of contaminated product and confusion over batch numbers. Last week some of France’s biggest supermarkets, including Carrefour, Auchan and Leclerc, said Lactalis products subject to recalls from December had still found their way on to shelves

After meeting Besnier on Friday, the finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said: “The aim of this radical step is simple: to avoid delays, problems in sorting batches and the risk of human error.” The tough measure reflects official frustration at the handling of the crisis.

“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.”

Besnier denied reports that the company had been instructed to withdraw all products and insisted he had suggested the radical move.

“It would be wrong to say it was a ministerial order,” he told the Journal du Dimanche.

“Everyone is mobilised to understand what has happened. There have perhaps been human errors.”

Traces of salmonella bacteria were picked up on a broom and a tile near drying equipment at the Craon factory in August and again in November. However, no general alarm was raised “because we had no element showing our products were affected”, Besnier said.

Under European law, the company is only obliged to flag up reports of contamination if its products are affected and could be a threat to public health.

“But we will learn the lessons of this crisis and draw up a new health and safety plan that is even more strict in consultation with the authorities. Our absolute priority is maximum health safety,” Besnier said.

Lactalis, headed by Besnier for 17 years, also produces the Président brands of butter and camembert, Lactel milk and the well-known Société roquefort cheese. Besnier said he hoped the Craon factory, which employs 330 people and has been closed since December, would restart production in “a few months”.

“But we’ll do this only when we can totally guarantee health safety,” he said.

Forbes magazine lists Besnier as France’s eighth wealthiest person and has nicknamed him the “French Howard Hughes” for his reputation for discretion and, until now, keeping out of the headlines.

The company boss said his first concern was the health of the children who had fallen ill and insisted Lactalis was “hiding nothing from the authorities”.

He also promised compensation to affected families.

“There are complaints and there will be an investigation with which we will fully cooperate. We never thought to act otherwise,” Besnier said.

“Our priority has always been to manage the crisis and to ensure there are no new sick children … we’re told that the [unwell babies] are doing well, which is the most important thing,” he said.

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