The European Commission has said France acted correctly when issuing an alert for a suspected foodborne outbreak caused by infant formula from Ireland despite further investigations revealing it was not the source of illnesses.

Alerted by consumer complaints, French authorities reported four cases of Salmonellosis in infants to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) in late July. The cases involved infants fed on infant formula manufactured in Ireland.

Irish and French authorities investigated and all product tests and samples from the infant formula plant were negative for Salmonella and no link could be established.

The European Commission told Food Safety News there was more than one Salmonella strain implicated.

Four cases were initially involved but only two were confirmed with infection – one by Salmonella Arizona and the other by Salmonella enterica.

“The fact that the case is closed indicates that the suspected food origin of the human cases could not be confirmed. The investigations stay under the responsibility of the national authorities to try and find the origin of the cases. Now though the aim is to identify the source, this may not always prove feasible,” said a spokeswoman.

The EC spokeswoman said France took the right action – especially when contamination potentially affected baby food.

“Rapidity allows the quick action of partners and contributes also to reinforcing the investigations as other control authorities get involved. Now if the investigation leads to conclude that the origin is not what was initially considered, then the case should be closed. Obviously, this may lead to trade disruption, but the protection of consumers should prevail,” she said.

Irish investigation

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) told this publication it investigated the complaint with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).

“We note that the specific infant formula used by the infants who were ill tested negative for Salmonella; and that the infants who were ill did not have the same strain of Salmonella,” said officials.

“We are satisfied that the production site is free from Salmonella, as is the infant formula produced on site and that the quality and safety procedures are such as to reveal any microbiological contamination were it to be present, and that in addition, product is only ever released to market once tests show each batch is free of contamination. The matter of suspension of production does not and did not arise.”

The plant is subject to regular audits by DAFM and every complaint is examined and followed up.

FSAI added as no link between the illnesses and infant formula was established it “was not appropriate” to name the company concerned.

French follow-up

The French Directorate General for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) told us that serotyping of the isolated Salmonella strains was finalized at the beginning of last week and results specified the two cases of salmonellosis were caused by different serotypes.

“The results of the serotyping led French authorities to judge less likely a link between infections of newborns and consumption of infant formula. The investigations carried out by the Irish authorities coupled with this result led to the conclusion that no link could be made between the clinical cases and infant milk consumption and so we closed the investigations,” said a spokesman.

Santé Publique France leads epidemiological investigations in the country with the help of national reference centers which are labs with expertise in microbiology and observation of communicable diseases.

In June, France made a RASFF notification about a foodborne outbreak suspected to be caused by infant milk formula from Spain. It was later withdrawn.

French authorities said due to the lack of a strong link between the cases or contamination with Salmonella and in the absence of positive results, it decided to release the products blocked.

The DGCCRF official said it had not made an incorrect notification on the RASFF portal in either case.

“In the case of [the alerts] the notification made did not conclude that infant milk consumption was related to clinical cases but was to inform the Irish authorities and other member states of human cases,” he said.

“Some reports may actually not lead to a link being identified, but it is our responsibility to inform our counterparts and do the necessary investigations to ensure no link can be made. In any case, we are convinced that the transmission of these types of information (weak signals) is essential to identify crises as quickly as possible and ensure a high level of consumer protection.”

The European Commission also said there was no mistake by France making the notifications.

“If cases of salmonellosis happen, an investigation should be undertaken to identify their source. And an alert should be launched to allow other trade partners, the Member States or third countries to react. This is true for Spain as for Ireland. What matters is that no delay would result from hesitation, to allow quick reaction by control authorities, all the more when the health of children is at stake,” added the spokeswoman.

Last year, a Salmonella outbreak traced to Lactalis infant formula made at a plant in Craon, France sickened 38 infants in the country, two in Spain and one in Greece. The company was allowed to restart production of infant formula without commercialization last month after a number of corrective measures were implemented.

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