E. coli illnesses linked to frozen pizza made by
in France have killed two children and sickened dozens of others, presenting the packaged-foods giant with its most serious food-safety issue in years.
French authorities last month launched a criminal investigation into Nestlé for involuntary manslaughter, deceitful practices and endangering others, according to France’s Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention, a government body tasked with protecting consumers.
Authorities notified Nestlé in mid-March of a possible link between its Buitoni Fraîch’Up pizza and reports of E. coli infections dating from the start of the year. Nestlé recalled the products in France and voluntarily stopped production at its factory in Caudry, northern France. Two weeks later, authorities said they had confirmed the link between consumption of the pizza and the illnesses.
Pizza made at the factory is distributed in various countries in Africa and Europe. Belgium has ordered a recall, while Luxembourg has issued a public warning. The affected pizza isn’t sold in the U.S.
Nestlé, better known for its Nescafe coffee, Kit Kat chocolate and Purina pet-food brands, said it is cooperating with French authorities on the investigation and is working on an action plan that would allow it to reopen the factory safely. The company says authorities are trying to find the origin of the outbreak and that it stands ready to support the probe.
After inspecting the pizza factory, French officials flagged issues they described as a threat to public health and said in a shutdown order issued last month that Nestlé had breached European laws requiring food makers to take steps to maintain hygiene.
The shutdown order cited the presence of rodents and inadequate pest control, as well as poor maintenance and cleaning of manufacturing and storage areas. “These anomalies constitute an important source of microbiological, physical or chemical contamination of the foodstuffs handled in the establishment,” it said.
It couldn’t be determined whether the issues flagged in the shutdown order contributed to the outbreak, though food-safety experts say poor controls at a plant could cause an existing E. coli contamination to spread. The main strain of E. coli found in the French cases is historically linked to flour and wheat that could have been contaminated in fields or during the milling process, said Ben Chapman, a professor at North Carolina State University’s Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences.
A Nestlé spokesman said the hygiene issues at the factory were “an exceptional, unfortunate situation that is not representative of our high quality and safety standards.” He added that the company regularly checks that all ingredients meet its specifications, and that testing for E. coli is required for its flour suppliers.
E. coli bacteria generally live in the intestines of people and animals, and most are harmless. However, some can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting. In children, particularly those under 5, the bacteria can also lead to a life-threatening disease called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which causes kidney damage or failure. One pathogenic E. coli causes disease by producing a toxin called Shiga toxin.
Investigations by French authorities found Nestlé’s pizza was contaminated with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, according to health-data body Sante Publique.
In the U.S., an estimated 265,000 STEC infections occur each year, causing 30 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of illnesses in the French outbreak has been climbing steadily since February, when Sante Publique began publishing figures. By late April, in addition to the two children who died, it said 52 children and one adult had confirmed cases of E. coli illness, with 87% of these developing HUS. The median age of children affected is 7.
Food safety experts say the number of illnesses is likely higher than the confirmed cases indicate because France counts STEC cases by recording only voluntarily reported HUS cases in people under 15 years old, meaning many less severe illnesses go uncounted.
Pierre Debuisson, a lawyer representing the families of the two children who died after eating the pizza, said they were 2½, and 8 years old. Mr. Debuisson said he is representing the majority of families affected and that his clients include the family of a 12-year-old who has brain lesions, can’t respond to stimuli and is consigned to a wheelchair.
The outbreak has received much attention from French news outlets, which have highlighted the age of those affected and raised questions about Nestlé’s hygiene practices.
News outlets have carried photos of the Caudry pizza factory showing food spilled on the floor, a worm on a production line and leaking engine oil. Nestlé has confirmed the photos are from the factory but says they are from 2020, not 2022, and not a reflection of its strict standards.
When asked about the outbreak on a recent investor call, Nestlé Chief Executive
said delving into the matter and drawing lessons from it “will keep us busy for months and years to come.”
Nestlé bought the Buitoni brand, which also makes refrigerated pasta and sauces, for $1.3 billion in 1988 and sold the North American part of the business in 2020.
The company has grappled with a major E. coli crisis before, when in 2009 its Toll House cookie dough was linked to dozens of illnesses in the U.S.
After some experts said that flour was the likely source—and Nestlé learned that many consumers were eating the product raw or undercooked—the company decided to heat treat the flour used in the dough.
Several other E. coli outbreaks have proved deadly in the past few decades.
In 2018, two E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. tied to romaine lettuce were linked to more than 200 illnesses and five deaths. In 2011, an E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts in Germany killed over 50 people. In 1993, four children died and hundreds of people fell ill in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. after eating Jack in the Box burgers tainted with a harmful strain of E. coli.
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at [email protected]
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