Lactalis is facing an “aggravated deceit” charge by a court in France over infant formula recall failures dating back to 2017.

In a statement provided to Just Food by the French dairy giant, Lactalis said it was “summoned” to the judicial court in Paris last Thursday (16 February) in a case related to salmonella contamination in infant formula produced at its Craon plant in north-western France.

The company was charged for “failure to carry out withdrawal and recall measures”, along with “aggravated deceit” and “unintentional injury”, Lactalis said. It was ordered to deposit EUR600,000 (US$640,995) as an investigation by the court gets underway.

France’s DGCCRF consumer protection agency initially ordered the recall of infant formula manufactured at the Craon site in December 2017 after 20 cases of salmonella agona infection in infants.

Claims were then made in January 2018 that Lactalis was aware of the contamination as far back as August 2017 after conducting internal examinations but opted to keep the details confidential.

However, investigations carried out by France’s Ministry of Agriculture at the Craon plant between August and September of 2017 found no traces of contamination. But another inspection by officials in December did find traces.

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By GlobalData

Lactalis then suspended production and widened its initial recall through multiple phases as more infants became ill. At one stage, the recall amounted to 12 million tins of formula from up to 80 countries.

DGCCRF also then widened its own recall to include infant formula exported to the UK, China, Greece and Colombia. Just Food has approached the consumer protection agency for comment on the latest development.

Meanwhile, Lactalis said in its statement: “This step marks the beginning of the judicial investigation in which Lactalis will engage fully and transparently. All Lactalis’ employees and managers are fully aware of the ordeals experienced by the families whose children were ill and hope that all the clarifications will be provided.”

Privately-owned Lactalis added: “It is essential, for them as well as for Lactalis, that the judicial investigation provides these answers. We will, in the following weeks, have access to all the elements of the file and will be able to respond precisely to all the points raised by the investigation. The aim of this procedure is to establish the scientific truth in this complex industrial case.”

In January 2018, Lactalis CEO Emmanuel Besnier said the company would pay compensation to every affected family.

Months later in June, Lactalis got the all-clear from French authorities to restart infant formula production at Craon but was not permitted to put products on sale.

The plant fully reopened in September 2018 but the company continued to face criticism and accusations from the French media.

In one such instance in October 2018, France’s Minister for Transition and Ecological, François de Rugy, was quoted as saying in the Europe 1 newspaper: “There is an on-going legal process in relation to the facts concerning infant milk. If ever Lactalis tried to defraud against the instructions that were given to them, obviously it must be condemned.”