In a rare interview, the head of Lactalis said families would be compensated for damages resulting from salmonella contamination at one of its plants producing baby milk. The company exports to 83 countries.
French dairy giant Lactalis has widened its product recall to cover all infant formula made at its Craon plant, regardless of the manufacture date. The recall involves up to 12 million tins of powdered baby milk.
Salmonella infections can be life-threatening and the company has been hit by a series of lawsuits from more than thirty families in France whose children have become ill as a result of the contaminated product.
"We will compensate every family which has suffered a prejudice," Lactalis Chief Executive Emmanuel Besnier told the weekly Journal du Dimanche in a rare interview published on Sunday. "It's not easy to evaluate the number of items that need to be returned because we don't know what's been consumed already," he said.
The privately-owned company is one of the world's biggest dairies and exports its baby food products to 83 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia with annual sales of €17 billion ($20.73 billion). The company employs 18,900 people across 47 countries.
Local media have reported that salmonella bacteria was detected by Lactalis' own technicians in August and November but authorities were not notified of the find. State inspectors reportedly gave the Craon site a clean bill of health in early September.
Dozens of children fell sick in mid-December, leading to international recalls of Lactalis' Picot, Taranis and Milumel branded baby milk.
Company executive defends actions
Besnier, known by workers as the "invisible man" because of his normally low profile, defended his company's actions, saying it had acted as quickly and efficiently as possible. He denied slowing the process to curb losses.
The health scare resulting from the contamination risks damaging France's reputation in international agribusiness. Melamine-tainted baby milk in China lead to the deaths of six children in 2008. That led to distrust of local producers and more sales for international suppliers such as Nestle, Danone and Lactalis.
jm/jlw (Reuters, AFP)