June 7, 2018 / 12:40 PM / 15 days ago

Grilled by French MPs, Lactalis defends handling of baby milk crisis

* CEO appears before French parliamentary hearing

* Says group took all steps once salmonella outbreak known

* Lawmakers criticise firm’s secrecy in tense exchange

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Gus Trompiz

PARIS, June 7 (Reuters) - The contamination of baby milk with salmonella at a Lactalis factory in France last year was an accident and the dairy group took the necessary steps to prevent more babies falling ill, the company’s CEO told lawmakers in a rare public appearance.

Lactalis, the world’s largest dairy group, recalled millions of tins of baby milk in France and around the world, and halted production at its Craon plant in northwest France after dozens of babies fell ill last year due to drinking salmonella-contaminated milk.

The scandal, which deepened when errors in the massive product recall left some potentially contaminated baby milk on shop shelves, fuelled criticism of poor communication by Lactalis, which is privately held by the Besnier family.

In a sometimes tense exchange with members of a parliamentary committee investigating the contamination, softly spoken Chief Executive Emmanuel Besnier apologised for the distress caused to families but defended his group’s safety record.

“Regarding the handling of the crisis, I think at each stage we took the necessary measures to ensure that no baby would fall ill in relation to our products,” Besnier, said on Thursday to the committee of lawmakers from France’s National Assembly.

Lactalis reiterated previous comments that tests of its products had not shown any salmonella prior to the recall and that the contamination was linked to work in the factory that released bacteria hidden in the structure of the building.

“It was an accident, no one is responsible for this at the factory,” Besnier, 47, who appeared alongside four other senior Lactalis managers, said.

The cases of babies falling sick were all before the start of the product recall on Dec. 2, 2017, which Lactalis triggered as soon as it was informed by the authorities of a link to its Craon factory, he said.

“It is not the contamination that is on a large scale, it is the product recall,” he said.

The CEO’s comments irritated several lawmakers who said the group failed to explain fully the events and had understated the seriousness of the crisis.

“When you feed many of the world’s children it is your duty to communicate,” Gregory Besson-Moreau, the parliamentary committee’s rapporteur, said after the hearing.

“You can’t change a culture of secrecy within a few weeks. I hope they are going to try harder.”

The parliamentary committee is due to publish a report in July. A separate judicial inquiry is also continuing into the salmonella outbreak.

Lactalis said last week it was testing production again at its Craon plant with a view to restarting output.

The group has permanently closed the production line linked to the salmonella outbreak. It has also said it will now use two external testing firms for products made at Craon, after tests by its existing partner failed to detect last year’s contamination.

In February, Besnier said Lactalis could have been producing salmonella-tainted baby milk at Craon since 2005. The crisis was likely to cost the company hundreds of millions of euros, he said. [nL8N1PR0U1

Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide and Gus Trompiz; editing by David Evans

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