President Emmanuel Macron said he ordered ministers to meet with retailers including Carrefour and Casino to discuss the failure to withdraw dairy company Lactalisâ€™ salmonella-infected baby food products from store shelves.
"If penalties are needed, they will be imposed," Macron said at a press conference in Rome, where he attended a Franco-Italian summit, without offering more specifics.
At least 35 infants have been poisoned by salmonella after consuming formula produced at a Lactalis plant in western France, according to the French government, which ordered a recall of the tainted products December 8.
While the scandalâ€™s fallout is spreading, Lactalis remains the focus of anger. The dairy company faces an investigation by prosecutors and legal action by consumers.
â€śThis is a serious matter and there has been unacceptable behavior that should be punished,â€ť Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said at a press conference earlier Thursday.
â€śThe government has had to intervene with a company that was out of order and that has the sole responsibility for the quality and security of its products on the market.â€ť
Lactalis responded Thursday that it is doing its utmost to get to the bottom of the matter and regain the trust of consumers.
â€śIâ€™ve been at the company for 28 years and weâ€™ve never lived through an event like this,â€ť Lactalis spokesman Michel Nalet said in a televised press conference. â€śWeâ€™re doing everything to get to the causes of this, to move forward, get the plant working again and recover peopleâ€™s trust.â€ť
French retailers are now being drawn into the scandal as consumer advocates excoriate them for being insufficiently thorough in pulling the products.
CarrefourÂ said it sold 434 products that should have been recalled. Casino said it has sold 352 such items, according to AFP. Closely-held grocers Systeme U and E. Leclerc have also admitted that some of the products got through to consumers.
"This hasnâ€™t been taken seriously enough," Jean-Yves Mano, president of consumer association CLCV said on the radio station France Info Thursday. The retailers â€śneed to assume responsibility for public health.â€ť
Recalled infant products by Lactalis include formula sold under the brands Picot, Milumel Bio, and Pepti-Junior.
Carrefour has moved to pull all products from the infected factory and not just the 12 batches included in the governmentâ€™s recall order, the company said in a statement.
Late Wednesday, retailer Intermarche Chairman Thierry Cotillard said that his company would "definitively" stop selling any infant products from Lactalisâ€™s brand Milumel, blaming the dairy group for the mishandling of the products recall.
Shares in both Carrefour and Casino fell in Paris.