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French MPs want food firms crackdown after baby milk scandal

media Lactalis headquarters in Laval, western France REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A French parliamentary commission is to propose tighter controls on the food-processing industry after 36 babies were found to have been infected by tainted milk marketed by Lactalis, the world's biggest dairy products company, which is basd in France.

The food processing industry cannot be left to police itself, the commission's chairman, Christian Hutin, told Europe 1 radio ahead of the official unveiling of its report on Wednesday.

The MPs were asked to look into food safety following the discovery last year that 36 babies had been infected with salmonella poisoning after consuming milk processed by Lactalis.

The recall of the products was chaotic, with some products still in the shops three weeks after it was ordered, and subsequent inquiries found that the company did not act after finding traces of salmonella in its equipment because it did not find any in milk.

In total 204 babies were infected between 2005 and 2017, Lactalis representatives told the commission.

Improving recall procedures

The commission is to propose a bill in the next few days.

It will suggest tougher fines, proportionate to a company's turnover.

And food-safety policing will be tougher with a rise of 20 percent in the number of inspectors.

Hutin called for tighter outside policing, not only of the industry but also of the laboratories charged with testing products.

The laboratory that worked with Lactalis did 90 percent of its business with the company, casting doubt on its independence, he pointed out.

Companies should be "hit in the wallet" if they do not "respect a form of ethics and rigour" in policing themselves, Hutin said.

To improve recall procedures, the commission wants to introduce stress tests that examine possible reactions to certain scenarios, use barcodes to stop sales, and improve training in retail outlets on the question.

It proposes that every shop should have one employee in charge of public health issues.

Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire has promised to look into the possibility of using customers' banking details to notify them if products they have bought are being recalled, although the proposal could run into problems relating to banking confidentiality.

A separate committee, set up by consumers' and professional groups, has called for the establishment of a government website where producers and retailers would be obliged to post all necessary information.

Call for single authority

The parliamentary commission is deeply critical of the lack of coordination of government supervision of food safety, currently covered by three different ministries - health, agriculture and economy.

There should be a single authority with "a single number, a single site, [taking] a single decision", Hutin said.

Addressing the commission last month, Le Maire opposed that idea, saying that the current food safety body, the DGAL, which comes under the agriculture ministry, and the anti-fraud office, DGCCRF, which comes under the economy ministry, "have very different responsibilities".

But there should be a hierarchy, headed by his ministry, when a crisis erupts, he said.

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