French police raided the headquarters of dairy giant Lactalis and a nearby factory on Wednesday amid a salmonella scare that has resulted in 18 babies being hospitalised.
At least 37 babies in France are known to have fallen sick and another in Spain, while Greece has also seen one unconfirmed case.
Of the babies taken ill in France, 18 were hospitalised. All are now recovering well, according to the public health agency.
Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed against Lactalis by families who say their children got salmonella poisoning after drinking powdered milk made by the company.
Reporters at the scene said police arrived early on Wednesday at the embattled company’s main officers in Laval, western France, and the factory in nearby Craon, identified as the source of the tainted milk.
The French government has laid the blame for the widening crisis squarely on both Lactalis, one of the world’s largest dairy groups, and on retailers who sold the tainted products despite a recall.
“When you have a case of milk on the market which has clearly caused complicated health problems for children, it means at some point there was negligence,” Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said Sunday.
Lactalis CEO Emmanuel Besnier said at the weekend that more than 12 million packages of Picot, Milumel, Celia and other brands of powdered baby milk had been recalled in 83 countries.
The CEO offered to compensate the affected families.
Buy victims silence?
An association of victim’s families, which met with the government on Monday, has firmly rejected the compensation, accusing Lactalis of trying to buy their silence.
The association’s president Quentin Guillemain said the explanations given by Besnier fell far short of expectations.
“We still don’t know where they are, we don’t know if they have been destroyed or if they’ve been drunk,” he said.
Guillemain said it also remained unclear when the salmonella outbreak at Lactalis’s Craon plant first occurred, suggesting it could have been before 2017, the period initially covered by the recall announced in December.
His group has disputed health authorities’ tally of 37 children sickened by the salmonella outbreak in France, saying that without systematic testing of babies brought to doctors, the true figure remains unknown.
Salmonela discovered in August
Anger has been growing since it emerged that Lactalis’s own tests had discovered salmonella at the Craon site in August and November, but did not report the findings because it had no legal obligation to do so.
Besnier denied claims that Lactalis had lied about the dates and number of stocks affected by the salmonella outbreak.
Created in 1933 by Besnier’s grandfather, Lactalis has become an industry behemoth with annual sales of some 17 billion euros ($20.6 billion), with products including Galbani ricotta and mozzarella in Italy.
With 246 production sites in 47 countries, its list of products also features household names like President butter and Societe roquefort.
Two of those brands, Picot and Milumel baby milk, were the subject of chaotic international recalls issued in mid-December after dozens of children fell sick.