French firm Lactalis is recalling 12 million baby food items globally following a major scandal. There are growing fears that more infants could get infected with salmonella, not only in France. Lisa Louis reports.
Quentin Guillemain has been angry ever since December 5. That's when he first read in the papers that French conglomerate Lactalis had ordered a recall of a number of baby milk products all produced in a factory in Craon in northwest France over fears of salmonella poisoning.
Among the products in question was a variety of lactose-free milk that Guillemain had fed to his 3-month-old daughter for several weeks. Of course, after reading about the recall, he immediately stopped giving the milk to his baby. She hasn't developed any symptoms so far, but that doesn't mean Guillemain is not still worried.
Neither the company, nor the state have been able to explain just how the salmonella bacteria got into the food products and how widespread the contamination really is. The cases of infection that have become known so far could just be the tip of the iceberg.
The government has currently declared at least 37 infections, with the recall widening. A couple of days ago, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire announced that all baby milk products made in Craon would be called back — which means about 12 million items in 83 nations!
That's a huge challenge, but this move alone won't be enough to see Guillemain's trust in the firm restored. Last month, he founded a pressure group representing the interests of families affected by the scandal and was the first to file a lawsuit against the company on charges of denial of assistance and neglect.
"I just want to know what happened and who's responsible," he told DW.
Guillemain doubts that the recall will be successful. "We're not only talking about industrialized nations like France, but also about developing countries in Africa and Asia where not all shops register products electronically," he said. "It will hardly be possible to get everything back from small local stores there."
He also argues that people in many other nations do not have the same access to good health care as they do in France, compounding the situation.
Poor crisis management?
Even in France, some affected products slipped through the net. In a supermarket of the E.Leclerc retail chain, more than 900 potentially contaminated products were sold. The head of retail chain Intermarche, Thierry Cotillard, accused Lactalis of "chaotic crisis management." State-led checks have shown that some banned products are still being handed out in a few drug stores, kindergartens and hospitals.
Lactalis spokesman Michel Nalet doesn't see any problems with the recall. "We have clearly defined procedures for this and are in contact with all our retailers," he said. "We get the products back globally and destroy them in line with precise instructions."
He added that as a precautionary measure, Lactalis was also recalling breakfast cereals produced in the Craon factory — "just to be on the safe side."
However, the government remains skeptical. Salmonella bacteria was found during random probes in the factory in December, leading to its temporary closure. The bacteria was also found in a food-drying system, and not only, as Lactalis had claimed, on cleaning devices that have no direct contact with food products.
French President Emmanuel Macron has threatened sanctions, should it become clear that the company acted irresponsibly.
Contaminated since 2005?
The fact that the government has used harsh words to describe the scandal is no reason for Guillemain to think Paris is free from guilt. "Both sides reacted far too late in taking the right security measures," he said. He added there wasn't even any clarity about when the contamination started.
After all, the renowned Paris-based Institut Pasteur had found that the bacteria discovered today resembled a strain of bacteria found at the factory back in 2005. Back then, the firm belonged to the Celia group which later acquired Lactalis.
Guillemain isn't alone in his anger. Paris prosecutors have meanwhile received more lawsuits, and the number is expected to rise further as in France suits can be filed in a decentralized way, meaning it can take some time for them to reach Paris and be registered there. Let alone the lawsuits that may be coming in from equally angry people abroad.