PARIS — When the French dairy giant Lactalis began recalling baby formula, Ségolène Noviant thought she was safe. The milk she had been feeding her 5-month-old son wasn’t on the list.
Then her son, Noan, was rushed to the emergency room with a fever, diarrhea and internal bleeding. His formula was tainted with salmonella — and a broad range of other Lactalis powdered milk products still on the shelves were at risk, too.
It would take three recalls and many weeks for the scope of the problem to finally become clear, stoking public outrage over what has become known in France as “L’Affaire Lactalis.” In one of the biggest recalls of its kind, the company has pulled more than 7,000 tons of potentially contaminated baby formula and other powdered milk products across more than 80 countries, mostly in Europe, Africa and Asia. And its chief executive said on Thursday that the company’s powered milk products may have been exposed to salmonella for more than a decade.
The massive recall and the missteps along the way have exposed corporate lapses and regulatory gaps that allowed tainted products to make their way into supermarkets and pharmacies, even weeks after the problems were discovered. The episode at Lactalis, which also makes yogurt, butter and cheese, has highlighted what critics say is lax oversight of industrial food companies and weak reporting standards across the European Union.
In the Lactalis case, the French government initially placed blame squarely on the company. But last week, as complaints about weak regulation intensified, President Emmanuel Macron said his government would “draw lessons” from the crisis.
“There will be zero tolerance on the part of the state,” he said.
European governments generally allow food companies to self-report problems to regulators, rather than require their disclosure. Compliance and enforcement of standards also vary from country to country. But the European Union operates as a single market, meaning that tainted products in one country can make their way through Europe and the rest of the world.
The recall is the latest in a series of food safety scandals that Europe has faced in recent years. Millions of tainted eggs were recalled in 2017 after poultry farms in Belgium and the Netherlands were contaminated with an insecticide. In 2013, horse meat was discovered masquerading as beef in Britain and Ireland.
In the Lactalis case, both the company and regulators missed opportunities to identify the problems before tainted products ended up on the shelf.
Lactalis initially found traces of salmonella at its main factory in August and again in November. But it did not alert regulators either time. Under French law, a company doesn’t have to tell authorities if it determines, through its own internal tests, that the food isn’t contaminated.
Standard inspections do occur once every two years, but they aren’t necessarily comprehensive. As part of a routine visit, the government inspected the factory in September, after the company had already discovered salmonella. But officials inspected just part of the factory and not the area that produced baby formula.
Lactalis instituted its first recall in early December. But the company didn’t go far enough. Reports of salmonella cases kept multiplying.
Those cases prompted the government to inspect the factory, located in the town of Craon, and afterward officials demanded that Lactalis vastly expand the recall. But the government didn’t discover the full extent of the problems. A couple weeks later, the company found more milk had been tainted and had to recall even more products.
In the meantime, Ms. Noviant’s baby, Noan, was hospitalized three more times. Over all, at least 38 children have been sickened by tainted milk. No deaths have been reported.
“My baby almost died,” said Ms. Noviant, 29, who quit her job as a restaurant manager in the southwestern city of Toulouse to care for Noan. “The company kept selling for profit and acted with impunity, but the government also failed.”
Lactalis started as a small cheesemaking business in 1933 and grew into a multinational behemoth by acquiring brands like Parmalat and Stonyfield Farm, which make cheese, milk and yogurt. The company now has 75,000 employees across 44 countries, and has become one of the world’s biggest producers of infant formula and cereals under the Picot, Milumel and other brands.
Emmanuel Besnier, the chief executive, took over leadership of the company in 2000 from his father and grandfather. Called “the invisible billionaire” by his employees, he has almost never been photographed or interviewed, and has rarely been seen at the Craon factory.
His relative silence about the scandal drew the ire of parents and consumers in France. Mr. Besnier, 47, eventually spoke with two French newspapers, Les Échos on Thursday and Le Journal du Dimanche last month.
A spokeswoman for Lactalis said Mr. Besnier was not available for an interview. The company declined to comment further.
On Thursday, Mr. Besnier acknowledged in the interview with Les Échos that the bacteria in recent milk products was identical to a strain found in the factory in 2005, under a previous owner. More than 140 babies in France got sick back then.
Lactalis bought that factory in 2006, and claimed when the scandal broke that it had disinfected the facilities. But the Institut Pasteur in Paris, a research center focusing on medicine and public health, announced on Thursday that at least 25 other infants had been infected with salmonella traced to the factory between the 2005 outbreak and these newest cases.
The latest problems have been building for months.
In August, the company found traces of salmonella on a broom at the factory, Mr. Besnier said in one of the interviews. The bacteria typically thrives in poor sanitation conditions, but Lactalis said it may have been introduced during a factory renovation last February.
Government inspectors visited the factory in September, but they did not review the area where baby formula was produced. They found nothing wrong, and Lactalis did not mention the traces of bacteria found the previous month.
Under French law, they didn’t have to. (A independent laboratory, hired by Lactalis, carried out 16,000 product checks and found no contamination, according to Mr. Besnier.)
Lactalis found more salmonella in November. Again it cleaned the site. Again it did not alert the authorities, Mr. Besnier said.
Soon, reports emerged of babies being rushed to hospitals after drinking the company’s infant formula.
On Dec. 1, the Agriculture Ministry announced that at least 20 children had been infected by salmonella, and that the problem could have originated at the factory in Craon. The next day, regulators returned and found that one of two drying towers used to make powdered milk was “filled with salmonella.”
This time, Lactalis verified the outbreak. The government ordered Lactalis to conduct a limited recall of baby formula.
A week later, as more reports of illnesses emerged, French officials expanded the recall and accused Lactalis of not moving fast enough to contain the crisis. On Dec. 21, Lactalis announced a third recall, expanding its scope to cover more than 7,000 tons of powdered milk products.
Despite the recall, thousands of the affected products were still being sold by pharmacies, hospitals and at least seven of France’s biggest retailers — including Auchan, Carrefour, Casino and Leclerc — during the busy holiday season. Lactalis blamed the retailers for failing to act fast enough, and the government said it would also hold those companies responsible.
The French government ordered the factory closed for decontamination, and Lactalis has said it will not reopen a major production line where the salmonella was discovered. The debacle is expected to cost the privately held company the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars, Mr. Besnier said.
The legal fallout is only just emerging.
An organization of families affected by contaminated products filed lawsuits this week against Lactalis for reckless endangerment, and against retailers that it said failed to quickly pull tainted products. One family is suing the French government for inadequate oversight because inspectors gave the plant a clean bill of health in September.
“This is a health scandal of unprecedented scale,” said Quentin Guillemain, who founded the family group.
Mr. Guillemain, who has a 3-month-old daughter, said it was unclear how many potentially contaminated Lactalis products remained on the market. The group is pushing for tighter food safety regulation and increased inspections at factories.
Lactalis has offered to compensate victims of the tainted products. Instead, the families say, they will press ahead with their lawsuits.
“Lactalis is a huge multinational,” Mr. Guillemain said. “That doesn’t mean it should be allowed to operate above the law.”