After having mentioned it, the health authorities confirmed it on Wednesday March 30. There is a link between the dozens of serious infections in children and adolescents, two of whom have died, since the beginning of the year and the consumption of Buitoni frozen pizzas. How did they come to this conclusion? On Friday April 1, Le Monde retraced the investigation carried out by the health authorities to identify the origin of this unprecedented infection. “This is the largest HUS epidemic ever seen in France,” said François-Xavier Weill, head of the Enteric Pathogenic Bacteria Unit at the Institut Pasteur.
First, they were challenged by the unusual high number of cases. As the national daily reports, the cases of hemolytic and uremic syndromes (HUS) are relatively low, around 160 cases are notified each year by Public Health France. This time, in just three months, several dozen people were affected, including children. Their age also raises questions: “Usually, it is children under 3 who are most frequently affected,” said François-Xavier Weill. But here they are between 1 and 18 years old and their median age is 7 years old. On the other hand, this epidemic is more observed in the summer period; however, the contaminations identified “exceed the number usually observed in pediatric HUS in winter”.
A singular tracing method
From there, the repression of fraud (DGCCRF), the General Directorate of Health (DGS) and Public Health France (SPF) carried out several investigations. To flush out the common food that led to all these infections, they used the loyalty cards of the retail chains belonging to the victims to go back to the head of the SHU cases. According to François-Xavier Weill, this method has already been used and it proved its worth in particular in 2011: “This tracking system had made it possible to trace germinated seeds, responsible for an epidemic of HUS which had caused more than 50 deaths in Germany.” This time, it made it possible to reveal a product more frequently consumed by the families affected than by the families spared: frozen pizzas Fraîch’Up, brand Buitoni.
After analyzing the dough of an unopened pizza in an affected family, health authorities discovered the presence of Escherichia coli bacteria. The following day, March 17, Nestlé France launched a recall procedure. Then the genome of the bacteria found in this pizza was compared to that of the bacteria taken from the patients. “The DNA sequences have ‘matched'”, revealed François-Xavier Weill. The investigation is not over since it still has to determine the origin of the bacteria in the pizza dough. Thursday, March 31, Nestlé indicated that the tests carried out at its Caudry site, where the pizzas were contaminated with E. coli, were negative.
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