Ice cream withdrawn from the shelves due to the presence of ethylene oxide, a substance classified as carcinogenic and banned in Europe. Serious poisoning caused by Buitoni pizzas contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Shortage this summer of chocolate biscuits Mikado, Petit Ecolier, Granola, Pepito or Pim’s due to a salmonella alert in one of the factories of the chocolate supplier of the Mondelez group. And, as recently as Monday, ground beef recalled – again – due to the presence of salmonella.
Hardly a day has passed in recent months without reports of food product recalls and withdrawals. While the general public remains marked by the recent Buitoni and Kinder scandals, are there more recalls? Should this be seen as a sign of more effective controls and more transparent information? Or an inflation of failures in the production chains? 20 minutes looked at these products that should not be put on our plates.
How are health checks of food products carried out, and who initiates recalls of contaminated products?
“All agri-food companies have an obligation to self-check,” says Stéphanie Chevalier-Lopez, Meilleur Ouvrier de France 2019 in the consulting and expertise class in food safety in catering and founder of SCL Quality. They send samples of their products to the laboratory for analysis. In addition, they self-check each other: on an industrial scale, distributors will carry out audits at their suppliers’.
But “this self-monitoring can be practiced to different degrees, specifies Roland Girerd, general secretary of Solidaires CCRF, the majority union of the DGCCRF. Manufacturers have an obligation to control the health risk on their production lines, and for some, self-checking is not carried out in the laboratory. This can be a simple visual check to make sure there is no debris on the chain. On the other hand, in the event of contamination, they are subject to a legal obligation to report to our services, he continues. Then, our alert unit ensures that the recalls are launched, that the information is relayed to the distributors who have already delivered”.
In practice, “as soon as there is a threat to public health, there is a legal obligation for agri-food professionals to inform the health authorities and to proceed with these withdrawals. [des entrepôts et des rayons] and reminders [de produits déjà vendus] of products unfit for consumption”, explains Ingrid Kragl, information director of Foodwatch France.
In parallel with this self-checking, “our agents carry out checks and samples on the production lines and at retail to reveal contamination, adds Roland Girerd. And our services are in contact with the European authorities and other control administrations, because food products are subject to French and European regulations”.
How do you explain that food products that need to be checked end up in stores if they have been soiled?
“The problem arises particularly for fresh products such as meat or pizzas, underlines Stéphanie Chevalier-Lopez. When manufacturers send samples for analysis to laboratories, it can take five to ten days. However, they send these products to the market before having the results, which explains why there are more recalls on fresh products than on canned products, for example. Technically, for the moment, we do not know how to have sufficiently rapid results upstream of distribution compared to the short lifespan of certain products”.
For Ingrid Kragl, there are two other explanations: “The Buitoni and Ferrero cases are an illustration of this: there is a political context which favors the emergence of these scandals. First, as we have said, the regulations are based on self-regulation and self-checks, which is not sufficiently effective. Too often, agribusiness giants don’t communicate with the authorities about problems. In addition, there are fewer and fewer public resources to ensure upstream health checks. Consequence: reminders are often issued too late. This is often the starting point for investigations: the observation of epidemic peaks leads to the investigation to find the source of the poisonings, ”she laments.
“We are doing everything we can with the means at our disposal, but our numbers have been steadily declining in recent years: there are less than 3,000 agents for the whole territory. Our working conditions have deteriorated and we do not have the means to carry out all of our missions”, warns Roland Girerd. And the result is not necessarily reassuring. “The DGCCRF is placed under the authority of the Ministry of the Economy, but food alerts will soon come under the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture,” he continues. What is looming is a dilution of administrative action, contradictory injunctions, and ultimately, a loss of efficiency that is harmful to consumers. However, in a context of inflation and the search for profit, it is all the more important that the control administrations have the substantial means to carry out their missions, and not to let the system rest solely on the confidence granted to industrialists. “. Thus, “the example of Buitoni illustrates a tripartite failure: of the company which is responsible for its production, of its distributor customers and of the control services which suffer from the lack of manpower, abounds Stéphanie Chevalier-Lopez. How did we come to this? »
Are there an increase in food product recalls, or are they more visible?
However, “the quality of controls in France is high, reassures Stéphanie Chevalier-Lopez. Zero risk does not exist, but the rate of food poisoning is stable. There are no more recalls, but the launch of the public platform Rappel Conso has improved their visibility.
Launched by the government in April 2021, this site “centralizes alerts of dangerous products, indicates the Ministry of Agriculture. A unique public site where professionals declare the products subject to a recall and where consumers can find the exhaustive, reliable and updated list of dangerous products recalled, whether they are food or non-food products”.
Is consumer information effective and accessible?
“The Rappel Conso site makes information more available to anyone who wants to look for it proactively,” says Ingrid Kragl. It is no more visible on supermarket shelves, and is often absent from the sites of the brands concerned, their social networks or online sales sites. There is still a real lack of transparency for consumers. One of the latest published recalls of minced meat contaminated with the health-hazardous salmonella does not mention any information on the points of sale concerned. It is half-information”.