12:15 p.m., April 10, 2022, amended to 3:54 p.m., April 10, 2022
Is the black series of three massive recalls a coincidence, or does it reveal flaws in food safety? After that of Fraîch’Up frozen pizzas from Buitoni (Nestlé group), which led to 50 contaminations in France by the E. coli bacterium and the death of two children, Kinder products (Ferrero group) suspected of having caused hundreds of cases of salmonellosis in Europe (including 21 in France), Lactalis in turn recalled, the day before yesterday, 24,000 raw milk cheeses.
In the first two cases, a factory is at the heart of the storm. The Arlon site (Belgium), where Kinder chocolates are made, ceased production the day before yesterday on the orders of the Belgian authorities. The Italian group Ferrero, which had detected contamination there on December 15, admitted “internal failures”. On the other side of the border, the Caudry factory (Nord), where 200 people produce Buitoni’s best-selling pizzas, was shut down by the prefect because it presented “a threat to public health”. Two inspections, carried out on March 22 and 29 by the departmental directorate for the protection of persons, revealed “many serious anomalies in terms of cleaning and general maintenance of premises and equipment”and even the presence of rodents “at the level of the bakery workshop”.
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While a preliminary investigation has been entrusted to the Paris prosecutor’s office, the origin of the contamination of the pizzas remains unknown. According to a ministerial source, the track of the dough would be under study. The results of the first 75 samples taken throughout the manufacturing process all came back negative, according to Nestlé. But former employees denounce the failure to take into account past alerts. According to Emmanuel Paillusson, from the Solidaires CCRF and SCL union, a ” Warning “ concerning hygiene had been issued following an inspection carried out in September 2020 by agents of the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention (DGCCRF). A “counter-visit” in March 2021 would, according to the trade unionist, raise “corrections on some points, but not on others”. The management of Nestlé indicates on the contrary that these checks had not revealed any difficulty. Another accusation: a deterioration in the hygiene of the site where production was reorganized in 2015. “Before, the lines operated during the day and were cleaned at night by hygienists, details Maryse Treton, of the Fnaf-CGT. From now on, after seventy-two hours, employees provide five hours of cleaning. The factory seems clean, but the group has sacrificed the hygienists, who know how to clean the nooks where the bacteria nest. »
The very serious epidemic of E. Coli, like chocolate recalls, raises questions about possible shortcomings in self-checking, at the heart of European and French regulations since the early 2000s, and now a pillar of the food safety system. The microbiological samples taken by the manufacturers themselves are thus sent for analysis in internal or external laboratories. “Some companies are virtuous, but others do business with lower-priced laboratories”denounces the general secretary CGT CCRF Jean-Philippe Simon.
This self-assessment is subject to State control, under the supervision of the DGCCRF and/or the General Directorate for Food (DGAL) at the Ministry of Agriculture. But successive reports have also pointed to flaws, it seems unresolved. In 2019, the Court of Auditors had thus concluded that there were shortcomings “ at all stages of the food safety control chain”. Result : “Unsafe food products sometimes continue to be handed over to consumers. » To remedy this, the magistrates recommended strengthening the resources of the public authorities, noting the low participation of industrialists in France in the financing of these controls: around 10%, compared to 28% in the Netherlands or 47% in Denmark.
Germs cannot be seen with the naked eye. It is necessary to be able to take microbiological samples
Today, less than 1,800 investigators control all the sectors under the DGCCRF, of which food represents only a part. In the North, the most populated department of France, they are about fifty agents, according to the CGT-CCRF. As a result, scheduled inspections – at least one per year at Buitoni – are postponed to deal with emergencies. “In veterinary services, we have lost a good third of the workforce since 2007”, retraces an inspector from the Ministry of Agriculture. Logically, the number of checks also drops. According to the NGO Foodwatch, it decreased by 33% between 2012 and 2019 at the DGAL. And these are often based on the documents provided by the company. “Germs cannot be seen with the naked eye.laments the expert. It is necessary to be able to take microbiological samples to ensure that manufacturers do not only show favorable results. »
“It is not with 50 or 100 more agents that we would have avoided the Lactalis affair”, explained at the time the Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, referring to the responsibility of the company. His entourage today takes up the same argument about the Buitoni affair, adding that public jobs were created under the Macron five-year term after the free cuts, under Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, linked to the general revision of public policies.
The NGO Foodwatch also points to the weakness of the penalties incurred in the event of a breach of food safety dogmas. “This type of case rarely goes to court”, says the organization. Five years later, the investigation of the Lactalis case is not complete. “There is still no indictment, so a priori there will not be”deplores Grégory Besson-Moreau, LREM deputy and rapporteur for the parliamentary commission of inquiry on Lactalis.
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Is the pizza tragedy a sad industrial accident or a sign of the company’s structural weaknesses? “The race for profit leads to cutting back on everythingaccuses Maryse Treton, of the Fnaf-CGT. The quality of the raw materials, the cleaning time…” For Yasmine Motarjemi, former head of global food safety at Nestlé from 2000 to 2010, the contamination of Fraîch’Up pizzas would reveal deeper evils: “A systemic problem in the company’s culture and its management of food safety. » For example, she relates a policy introduced in 2005 in the group, which consisted of penalizing any manager who withdrew contaminated products from the market. This expert claims to have alerted the group in 2006, then the international health authorities, without any effect. “We can’t prevent everything, but we must have done everything possible to preserve food safety. However, in my experience, Nestlé does not do everything. » Solicited, the group did not respond to our interview requests.