A massive food poisoning scandal has hit an infant formula company

A massive, multinational dairy company is embroiled in one of Europe’s biggest food-safety scandals, giving parents around the world reason to be nervous about buying infant formula.

Lactalis—an 85-year-old dairy company based in Laval, France—is recalling more than 7,000 tons of contaminated infant formula from its markets, which span nearly 80 countries around the world. At least 38 babies have fallen ill in the last year in Spain and France alone, infected by a strain of salmonella. The source of the pathogen was traced back to the company’s Craon Lactalis factory in the northwest part of France. The factory has been closed for cleaning and the company is now under criminal investigation.

Contamination problems can have deep and lasting effects. In 2008, an infant-formula problem in China sent 53,000 babies to the hospital and was linked to the deaths of at least six. The event sowed distrust in Chinese dairy products, and halted a number of countries from importing dairy foods from China altogether. The country’s top food-safety official resigned in wake of the scandal.

On a smaller scale, a 2015 scandal hit Chipotle, the American fast food chain that, until then, had positioned itself as a quick-serve restaurant of higher quality. The company still has not regained its footing. On Feb. 1, UBS analysts downgraded their view, and even suggested investors sell their Chipotle shares amid “depressed brand perceptions.”

Lactalis has yet to see what the full fallout may be. CEO Emmanuel Besnier has said that company tests indicate children might have been exposed to salmonella in his company’s products for the better part of the past decade. A French group that monitors salmonella cases, Institut Pasteur, has reported that incidents linked to the Craon factory stretch back as far as 2005, according to France 24.

In France, four of the country’s largest grocery chains have said they likely stocked Lactalis products contaminated by salmonella in the most recent case, according to media reports.

Lactalis owns several popular dairy brands. In January, the company announced it was acquiring Siggi’s, the US-based maker of Icelandic-style yogurts. It purchased the Stonyfield yogurt brand from Danone in June 2017 for $875 million. It also owns Sorrento, manufacturer of several lines of packaged cheeses widely available in grocery stores.

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