French probe calls for stricter food safety controls in wake of Lactalis affair

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

France looks at tougher food safety controls ©iStock
France looks at tougher food safety controls ©iStock
French Members of Parliament tasked with investigating the failings that contributed to the Salmonella outbreak traced to Lactalis infant formula in 2017 have made a raft of suggestions that could see the country introduce stricter food safety checks.

Grégory Besson-Moreau, the rapporteur of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Lactalis case, made a total of 49 recommendations focused on three main areas where there the committee believes there is scope for improvement.

The Parliamentary probe was sparked by a Salmonella agona outbreak that sickened 38 babies in France, as well as two infants in Spain and one in Greece. French dairy giant Lactalis was forced to recall products in more than 80 countries after the source of the contagion was traced to infant formula produced at its Craon facility.

The creation of a single regulatory authority

Chief among the proposals put forward by the commission is the creation of a single regulatory authority to oversee food safety in France.

Currently, a number of food safety bodies are responsible for carrying out checks and enforcing food safety requirements. These include consumer protection agency Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF); the Douane customs agency; and the Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES), which is responsible for monitoring, assessment and research into health.

A single authority – what Besson-Moreau termed a "health security police"​ – would centralise decision making, the rapporteur suggested. This would “prevent loopholes”​ and encourage a “vertical approach to health scandals"​, Besson-Moreau suggested.

The proposed central authority would be given responsibility for overseeing the entire product chain, from manufacturing to distribution and consumption. It would also provide consumers with a single point of contact for details on product recalls.

The Ministry of Economy has not indicated its support for such wholesale changes to France’s food regulatory infrastructure.

Improved transparency

The Lactalis case demonstrated the need for improved communication and transparency between food makers, regulators and consumers, the report suggested.

Lactalis came under fire when it transpired the company had detected traces of Salmonella through self-checks but failed to notify the competent authorities. Food companies should be required to automatically transmit details of any positive tests that they carry out, the report concluded.

The report comes just days after the National Consumer Council (CNC) launched a call for improved recall and withdrawal procedures and clearer consumer communications over food safety scares.

Consumer communication should be more transparent, with better in-store communications, the creation of a platform to record information on recalled products and the possible use of technology to automatically block the sale of products that have been included in a recall via their QR codes. This is necessary, the report argued, because infant formula included in the recall was still found on sale during the 2017 scare.

Harsher financial and criminal sanctions

In order to fund the changes, the committee suggested the introduction of heftier fines when food companies are linked to safety scares.

"Manufacturers are responsible for their products, they must pay if they are contaminated,”​ Besson-Moreau said.

He also called for increased criminal penalties linked to the management of companies that fail to tackle food safety issues appropriately. Under the current system, Besson-Moreau said that industrial leaders are “not brought to justice”​ when they sell contaminated products.

Further funding can be drawn from the introduction of a new industry tax that would be used to payroll improvements in health security.

Besson-Moreau is expected to introduce a bill containing the proposals later this year.

‘Justice is still waiting’

Responding to the report, consumer advocacy group FoodWatch, which has been active in representing consumer interests in the Lactalis case, said that there were some useful conclusions but stressed that “justice is still waiting”.

The organisation said it is necessary to dismantle the “climate of impunity”​ with tougher punishments linked to food scandals. In particular, FoodWatch re-stated its call for the appointment of an investigating judge in the Lactalis case.

"The conclusions of the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission on the Lactalis case are useful, for example to reinforce the controls of industrialists and public authorities. But this will not be enough to avoid other crises,"​ warned Karine Jacquemart, CEO of FoodWatch France.

“It is urgent to shatter the current climate of impunity: it is up to the courts now to establish responsibilities of all actors and dissuasive sanctions.”

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