Lactalis CEO Emmanuel Besnier has stood by the French dairy giant’s procedures throughout the recall of infant formula that has been linked to more than 30 children falling ill and which has been widened to take in more than 80 countries.
In the latest twist to an affair that cast a shadow over one of the world’s largest dairy manufacturers, it was announced on Friday afternoon Lactalis would recall all infant-formula products made at its plant in Craon in north-west France, the fourth and latest extension to a recall first announced last month.
The widening of the recall followed the revelation a number of French grocers had still been stocking formula that had been the subject of the previous recall, issued on 21 December.
That news sparked criticism of Lactalis by the French government but also led to the wider supply chain coming in for questions.
In an interview published yesterday, Emmanuel Besnier, chief executive of the family-owned Lactalis, said: “Our job is to put healthy products on the market. If this has not been the case, it is our responsibility. I assume that. But we consider that there have been no failures on our part on the procedures.”
Besnier told the Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper the latest extension of the recall – which, he insisted, was his suggestion, not an order from the French government – meant more than 12m boxes of formula from 83 countries had been recalled.
Asked by the newspaper how some of the affected formula could still have ended up on sale despite three previous recalls, Besnier said: “Everyone is working to understand what happened. There may have been human errors. Withdrawal transactions are standard procedures for distributors. The holiday season could have an impact. The traders will investigate, we accompany them with our sales teams who have already made 6,700 visits to assist them. We will continue to do that.
“We informed our customers by sending them the files of all the recalled products, accompanied by texts and posters validated with the authorities. Then it is up to them to implement the withdrawal, either by returning the boxes or by destroying them under control.”
On 2 December, France’s consumer protection agency, the DGCCRF, announced 20 babies under six months had been infected with salmonella after consuming products made at the Craon plant and – in conjunction with the company – announced a recall of batches of infant milk marketed under three brands.
On 10 December, the agency reported five more cases of infection. Bruno Le Maire, France’s Economy Minister, said the measures put in place by Lactalis “were not likely to control the risk of contamination” and ordered a recall of products shipped for export, as well as certain batches manufactured at the plant since 15 February.
On 21 December, Lactalis widened the recall to include its nutritional product Taranis and said it was pulling from the market all infant formula and nutritional products made at the factory since 15 February as a precaution.
Two weeks ago, the French weekly publication Le Canard Enchaîné claimed Lactalis knew of salmonella at the facility after internal investigations carried out in August and in November but, not being obliged to publish the information, kept it confidential. In between the two internal investigations, in September, the French Ministry of Agriculture was said to have visited the site and found no trace of salmonella.
Asked by Le Journal du Dimanche when Lactalis first became aware of salmonella contamination at the plant, Besnier said the company had two “alerts” – one in August and one in November – when it detected bacteria on a broom and on a tiles around one of the plant’s towers. He added this type of “environmental” analysis is carried out continuously at all of the business’ plants.
“We regularly take samples with smears on equipment and plant facilities. Then we send them to independent labs that send us the results four to five days later. To control salmonella is our daily life, as for listeria,” Besnier said.
Asked what procedures Lactalis had in place when bacteria is detected, Besnier replied: “We do a thorough cleaning of the facilities and then we do new tests. At the same time, we are tightening product controls to see if some have been infected.”
These procedures kicked in after the second alert in November. “We still had no evidence that our products were affected,” Besnier said.
The Lactalis chief executive said companies were only obliged to report positive results from their own checks if there was evidence products were in affected, which, he underlined “had never been the case”. He added: “For us, the ‘environmental’ controls are alerts to act and try to push the bacteria away from the products. But we will learn from this crisis and rebuild an even stricter sanitary control plan in consultation with the authorities. Our top priority is maximum security.”
Asked how Lactalis, at present, believes the salmonella bacteria could have arrived into the plant, Besnier said: “In the first quarter, we did some work at this plant. On this occasion, the bacteria may have been reintroduced inside the facilities. Our investigations concern the way in which this work was done. Believe me, we are actively seeking to understand. It’s my obsession.”
With production at the plant in Craon halted, some 250 staff have been laid off, with 80 being found roles at other sites.
Besnier said: “We hope to restart in a few months. But we will only do so when we can guarantee total health security. Our teams are working to further strengthen the control procedures. We will make all the necessary investments.”
When Le Journal du Dimanche put to Besnier there had been accusations from the families of the victims Lactalis had, during the affair, lied about the batches of formula affected, he replied: “That’s wrong. I do not know what this accusation is based on. When we received the report from the authorities, beyond the surprise, our first reaction was to worry about the consequences for consumers. These are babies under six months, it is for us, for me, a very great concern. We are told today that they are well, that is the most important thing.”