France needs 'food safety police' to avoid new Lactalis crisis: report

PARIS (Reuters) - France should appoint a “food safety police” and increase fines on those who sell contaminated products to avoid a repeat of the salmonella outbreak at a Lactalis milk factory last year that led to dozens of babies falling ill, lawmakers said.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Lactalis Group is seen at the entrance of the French dairy group Lactalis headquarters in Laval, western France, January 12, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

Lactalis, the world’s largest dairy group, had to recall more than 12 million tins of baby milk in France and around the world due to the outbreak, in a scandal that hit the reputation of France’s strategic agri-business industry in overseas markets.

France’s National Assembly launched a special enquiry into the scandal, which deepened when errors in the massive product recall left some potentially contaminated baby milk on shop shelves.

In their findings, lawmakers recommended tougher judicial and financial sanctions against food makers in case they sell a contaminated product.

“Those who do not play by the rules must suffer the consequences: criminal and financial sanctions that will be much more important than the current ones,” said Gregory Besson-Moreau, head of the committee.

The sanctions would be in relation to company turnover, rather than be fixed amounts, he said.

He also suggested imposing a fee on food producers to finance state-run inspections, something that has been allowed by the European Union.

This could raise 270 million euros per year, and lead to the creation of 800 jobs in a new “food safety police” reporting to the farm minister, he said.

Farmers would be excluded from the additional tax.

Food inspections in France are currently split between three administrations - economy, food and health -, which has created gaps and confusions in previous crises.

Between early April and mid-June the enquiry committee into the Lactalis affair held 35 hearings, questioning the ministers involved, Lactalis Chief Executive Emmanuel Besnier, CEOs and senior managers of France’s biggest retail chains, unions and inspection officials.

Lactalis declined to comment on the report but said it would respect any new regulations.

Improved checks and consumer information were also necessary given a risk of “food terrorism” - deliberate contamination or poisoning - the French lawmakers said.

In a separate report handed to Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire on Tuesday, a consumer affairs body stressed the need to review the product recall process in France.

Le Maire took up their proposal to use clients’ bank details to identify and contact people who bought suspicious products and agreed to create a system that would bloc recalled products at checkouts.

He also announced the launch of a single internet website to gather information in case of a health crisis.

Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Sybille de La Hamaide and Gus Trompiz; Editing by Alexandra Hudson