Several families in France are are planning to take legal action against supermarket chains after potentially tainted powdered baby milk found their way onto shop shelves despite a recall in December.
Many are also suing French dairy giant Lactalis over the scandal, which threatens to damage the reputation of France's agri-business industry overseas.
Reacting to an offer by Lactalis of financial compensation to affected families, spokesman of a victims’ group, Quentin Guillemain said that they wanted above all to find out the truth, adding that the company would not be able to “buy our silence”.
Three dozen infants in France and two others overseas have fallen ill since the discovery of salmonella bacteria in some baby milk at a factory in northwestern France in early December that prompted the botched recall. Salmonella infections can be life-threatening.
“It’s been confirmed to me that a certain number of families will file complaints in the coming days against the major supermarket chains,” Guillemain told reporters after meeting Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Health Minister Agnes Buzyn.
Guillemain did not say how many families would sue the retailers.
"It's time to finally know where these boxes are, where have they been distributed, which countries are concerned and it is time to do what is necessary."
"Of course, if we discover today that 83 countries are involved, then we can imagine that the situation is not known everywhere."
Last week the French government laid the blame for the widening crisis over salmonella contamination squarely on both Lactalis, one of the world’s largest dairy groups, and on retailers.
Carrefour, Leclerc, Auchan and Systeme U had said some baby milk recalled by Lactalis had still made it onto shop shelves.
French prosecutors have launched a judicial investigation into the contamination.
Lactalis has been accused of reacting too slowly to the scandal. It is now recalling some 12 million tins of baby milk, both in France and in foreign countries as far as China.
Lactalis Chief Executive Emmanuel Besnier gave a rare interview at the weekend in French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, offering to pay damages to families affected by the contamination scare
Guillemain said the families would pursue their legal complaints regardless of any compensation offered by Lactalis.
“What families are expecting today is not a private deal to drop their claims but to have the truth on what happened, from the beginning till the end. So the question of compensation is not today’s question,” Guillemain said.
“They will not buy our silence,” he added.
Families of victims in foreign countries could also file complaints in France, he said. One baby in Spain and one in Greece are suspected of having been contaminated by baby milk produced by Lactalis.
“Since the infraction occurred on French territory and the suspect — the Lactalis group — has its headquarters in France, the victims, whether they be Spanish, Greek or Chinese, will be able to file a complaint in France,” the group’s lawyer Jade Dousselin said.
Lactalis said it had recalled products from 83 countries.