From Nestlé’s Buitoni to Ferrero’s Kinder: High-profile scandals put European food safety in the spotlight

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Two food safety scandals in Europe impacted children in the region as Nestlé and Ferrero recall products / Pic:GettyImages-ArtMarie
Two food safety scandals in Europe impacted children in the region as Nestlé and Ferrero recall products / Pic:GettyImages-ArtMarie

Related tags: Food safety, Nestlé, Ferrero

Two food industry giants are facing major European product recalls. Nestlé’s Buitoni pizza brand has been linked to an E.coli outbreak in France while Ferrero has been forced to recall Kinder products across a number of markets due to Salmonella contamination. These headline grabbing scandals have raised the question of whether European food safety regulations are fit for purpose. FoodNavigator investigates.

Research suggests that just over half of European consumers -- 55% -- think food on sale in the region is safe. According to the EIT Food TrustTracker report, this rises to 74% of shoppers in the UK who trust the safety of the food they buy.

However, EIT Food’s figures also show that over one-fifth of European citizens think the food they have access to is generally unsafe. And only 46% expressed trust in food manufacturers, who were the least trusted part of the food chain behind farmers (67%), retailers (53%) and government agencies (47%). In fact, 26% of Europeans say they actively distrust food manufacturers.

European trust in the food system has faced some major challenges, perhaps most notoriously ‘horsegate’ when, in 2013, it was discovered that horsemeat was fraudulently being sold as beef in processed foods across Europe. Today, European trust in the safety and authenticity of packaged foods is once again being stretched by what has felt like an avalanche of scandals.

The region is facing two major food safety scares involving products from Ferrero and Nestlé.

Nestlé’s Fraîch'Up pizzas from Buitoni contaminated with E.coli

After the tragic deaths of two French children – as dozens of others fell sick with E.coli poisoning - Fraîch'Up pizzas from Nestlé’s Buitoni brand were removed from the shelves and recalled at the end of March.

Public authorities in France have confirmed the link between these cases of E.coli infection and the consumption of Buitoni frozen pizza. The Nestlé factory in which the pizzas were made has been shut down.

The average age of those affected by the contamination was just seven years old.

GettyImages-Micheal H kid child eating pizza
The contamination of Buitoni pizza has hit children hardest / Pic: GettyImages-Micheal H

“Let me first and foremost offer our deepest sympathy to all those affected,”​ Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider said on a recent conference call. “This is all the more upsetting since there's a number of children among the people who are impacted.”

Schneider was quick to defend Nestlé’s record on – and investment in – food safety standards.

“As soon as we were informed by the French authorities on the suspicion here that in the pizza dough, there would be E. coli STEC, we immediately carried out a voluntary recall of the product out of an abundance of caution, interrupted all deliveries and suspended production,”​ he stressed.

The company is ‘fully cooperating’ with the ongoing investigation being carried out by the French authorities, who are currently working to identify the ‘ultimate origin’ of the bacterial outbreak.

“Let me assure you, we take this very seriously because consumer trust in our products is very key to us… This is something that we do not cut any corners on,”​ Schneider insisted.

Ferrero’s Salmonella scare

Meanwhile, two weeks later, Italian chocolate maker Ferrero was forced to launch a worldwide recall of Kinder chocolates made at its Arlon production facility in Belgium.

According to the latest statement from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), updated earlier this month (12 April), the scare began back in February, when the UK reported a cluster of cases with monophasic Salmonella Typhimurium. By 8 April, 150 cases had been reported in nine EU/EEA countries and the UK.

Most of the people impacted are kids under 10 years of age and ‘many children’ have been hospitalised, EFSA revealed. Children have also been most at risk for severe infection among reported cases, the food safety body noted.

In a statement to FoodNavigator’s sister publication, ConfectioneryNews, Ferrero said: "The company takes food safety extremely seriously and we sincerely apologise for this matter."

Kinder eggs pic Ferrero
Ferrero has recalled Kinder products produced in Belgium over Salmonella contamination / Pic: Ferrero

Nestlé and Ferrero accused of employing an ‘avoidance strategy’

While Nestlé and Ferrero are at pains to emphasise exactly how ‘seriously’ they take the subject of food safety, these claims are being met with a degree of scepticism in some quarters.

Advocacy group Foodwatch France has accused both food giants of employing an ‘avoidance strategy’.

Nestlé’s Schneider downplayed the whirlwind of media speculation in France generated by pictures released by a ‘whistle blower’ as ‘old pictures from 2020’. Responding to a video and allegations of unsanitary conditions circulating in the French press, Schneider said: “They're not representative of the strict sanitary and quality standards at any Nestlé factory, and they're also not related to that current situation. They're clearly taken out of context, and we do regret any misleading impression that this has created."

But Foodwatch remains sceptical, implying that profits could have been put ahead of the Nestlé’s hygiene, health and safety priorities. Meanwhile, on Ferrero’s side, Foodwatch described the ‘minimisation strategy’ as ‘quite chilling’.

The group pointed to the 12-day gap between the British authorities linking Kinder products to the Salmonella outbreak in March and the extension of the recall in European markets like France. The company, it transpired, first detected Salmonella at the Arlon facility on 15 December – approximately two full months before the outbreak was first identified by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA).

GettyImages-luchschen microbial microbes petri dishes safety contamination
Foodwatch has accused both companies of 'avoidance strategies' / Pic: GettyImages-luchschen

The Ferrero production facility wasn’t closed until the beginning of April – and then only after the authorities in Belgium said they were unable to obtain necessary health and safety information from the company.

In a statement, a Ferrero spokesperson acknowledged some delay in its information flows. “Ferrero acknowledges there were internal inefficiencies, creating delays in retrieving and sharing information in a timely manner. This impacted the speed and effectiveness of the investigations. The plant will only re-open once certified by the authorities,”​ the spokesperson said.

Are ‘self-checks’ sufficient to manage food safety?

Foodwatch pins these failings on fundamental weaknesses in the system of self-checks that govern Europe’s approach to food safety.

The European Union’s legislative framework puts the responsibility for the hygiene of foodstuffs directly on the various players in the food chain through a self-regulating system using the method of hazard analysis and critical control points, which is monitored by means of official controls that must be conducted by the competent authorities. Foodwatch does not believe this approach is sufficient to protect European citizens.

Taking the Ferrero timeline as case-in-point, Ingrid Kragl, Information Director foodwatch France, commented: “When the Belgian authorities order the closure of the incriminated factory, Ferrero announces 'the temporary suspension of its activities' acknowledging 'delays in the recovery and sharing of information within the time limits'. In fact, Belgium has been very clear: Ferrero has been unable to provide the necessary guarantees related to food safety, which is why absolutely all Kinder products from this factory are being recalled. Ferrero's self-checks would have detected nothing for months and the brand was not aware? It's hard to believe."

In a bid to hold Nestlé and Ferrero ‘to account’ Foodwatch has launched a petition calling for increased transparency in food recalls. The group is urging regulators to adopt more controls, transparency and penalties for safety lapses.

“What measures were taken (or not) before it was discovered, too late, that their products were contaminated?”​ the campaign group asked. “We don’t know anything!”

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