The French dairy firm Lactalis has had to withdraw some 12 million boxes of powdered baby formula, in a salmonella scandal that reaches 83 countries.
Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa have all been affected, according to reports, after traces of salmonella bacteria were discovered at one of the dairy producer’s factories in France.
So far 35 cases have been reported in France, and another confirmed in Spain. A further possible case is being investigated in Greece.\
CEO Emmanuel Besnier confirmed the contamination in French media, speaking out about the recall for the first time this week following claims that the firm had tried to hide the outbreak.
“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.”
Lactalis is one of the world’s largest producers of dairy products — also making President brands of butter and camembert, and the Societe roquefort cheese — but the recall only affects the Milumel, Picot, and Celi brands of baby formula.
A Lactalis spokesperson told the BBC that every country affected — which doesn’t include the UK, the US, or Australia — had been warned of the contamination.
The recall was first issued in December, however, it was reported last week that a number of major supermarkets in France continued to sell the milk, despite the warnings.
Carrefour and Leclerc, as well as Systeme-U, Auchan, and Casino, all reportedly sold the products — with France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire describing it as “unacceptable behaviour, which should be punished.”
Salmonella can cause severe diarrhoea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and severe dehydration, and it can be fatal, particularly in young children.
Some parents who say their children became unwell after drinking the formula have filed lawsuits, according to the BBC.
“There are complaints and there will be an investigation with which we will fully collaborate. We never thought to act otherwise,” Besnier told French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, denying claims the firm had attempted to hide the outbreak.
“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,” Besnier said.
He also said that any families affected would be compensated.
It’s thought the contamination was caused by renovation work at the Celia factory in Craon, in north-west France.
Products from that factory have been banned while the investigation is carried out, according to France’s agriculture minister.
The majority of baby food products and baby formula is sold in North America and Europe — 87% and 66%, respectively, according to Nielsen’s Global Baby Care Report — but formula is becoming more popular in developing countries.
The World Health Organisation and UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, recommend that mothers try breastfeeding within an hour of their baby’s birth, and continue to breastfeed if it is an option until the infant is 6 months old. At that point, both organisations recommend introducing “nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods.”
Malnutrition and undernutrition are major issues in many developing countries. Around the world, nearly 155 million children under the age of 5 are stunted, and 52 million children are malnourished, according to UNICEF.
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