The product withdrawals have affected consumers in countries as far afield as China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Britain and Sudan
French prosecutors have opened a probe into salmonella contamination and a major international recall of baby milk produced by dairy giant Lactalis, a legal source said on Tuesday.
The investigation will focus on possible charges of causing involuntary injuries and endangering the lives of others but also possible cheating and failures in carrying out a product recall, the source said.
The investigation was first reported by the French news magazine Le Point .
Reports of about 20 children who had consumed Lactalis powdered milk – sold under a range of brand names in France and abroad – first emerged at the start of December.
The company, one of the world’s largest producers of dairy products, ordered a first major recall on December 10 of nearly 7,000 tonnes of packets produced by a contaminated factory in Craon, northwest France.
At the time, it said it did not know how much of the potentially dangerous powder had been consumed or was in shops around the world and it announced a second, wider recall on December 21.
The product withdrawals have affected consumers in countries as far afield as China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Britain and Sudan, underlining the reach of the company and the difficulty in tracing all the potentially at-risk powder.
Salmonella symptoms include severe diarrhoea, stomach cramps and vomiting. The illness – caused by intestinal bacteria from farm animals – is dangerous for the very young and elderly because it can cause severe dehydration.
The baby milk industry was shaken by a huge scare in China in 2008 when local manufacturers were found to be bulking their product with an industrial chemical. Six babies died and around 300,000 others were made ill.
The scare in the vast and growing Chinese market benefited rival companies such as Lactalis and fellow French giant Danone, which were more expensive but were seen by consumers as safe and high quality.
A total of 35 children fell sick with salmonella poisoning in France since August, an unusually high number which led health authorities to refer to an epidemic of the illness.
Of these, 16 had to be treated in hospital and 31 were found to have consumed Lactalis products from its factory in Craon.
The father of a three-month-old baby who drank the milk, and the UFC Que Choisir consumer association, had filed a complaint against Lactalis.
The legal probe will was opened by prosecutors in Paris who are specialised in public health issues.