Nestlé’s CEO has said experiences from an E. coli outbreak in France will keep the company busy for “months and years to come”.

French public health officials have confirmed 53 cases of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) linked to Buitoni brand Fraîch’Up pizzas and are investigating another 26 infections.

When asked about the incident on a call discussing Nestlé’s first quarter financial results, CEO Mark Schneider said the company was taking the link between the frozen pizzas and illnesses very seriously as consumer trust in products is key.

“In addition to the official investigation, when it comes to handling all the details of the matter, trying to maximize learnings from them, this will keep us busy for months and years to come. So clearly, this is something that we do not cut any corners on,” he said.

More than 50 children sick
In total, 51 infections were caused by E. coli O26 and two by E. coli O103, according to Santé publique France. Pizzas sold since June 2021 were withdrawn and recalled in mid-March after Nestlé was warned about the potential presence of E. coli O26 in dough used to make them.

Of the 53 confirmed patients, 52 are children and one is an adult. They fell ill between Jan. 18 and March 16. Two youngsters died but it is not known if they ate the pizzas. Sick children are between 1 and 17 years old with a median age of 7. In total, 23 are females and 29 are males.

Almost half of the patients have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure associated with E. coli infections that can result in lifelong, serious health problems and death.

Buitoni has suspended production and said it will not restart until the cause of the contamination has been identified so that the necessary corrective measures can be taken.

The implicated pizzas were distributed to several African countries plus Andorra, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Slovenia. The parquet de Paris opened an investigation into the incident in late March.

Ongoing investigation
Schneider expressed sympathy with those affected and confirmed the company would give all the support it can to the people who are sick and their families.

“This is all the more upsetting since there’s a number of children among the people who are impacted. Let me tell you that as soon as we were informed by the French authorities on the suspicion that in the pizza dough, there would be E. coli, we immediately carried out a voluntary recall of the product out of an abundance of caution, interrupted all deliveries and suspended production,” he said.

“At the moment, as you know, there’s a public investigation underway. This limits how many details we can share on the situation. But we’re fully cooperating with the authorities. They have a very important task to do, and that is to find the ultimate origin of this particular outbreak.”

Santé publique France, the Directorate General for Food, Directorate General for Competition, Consumption and the Repression of Fraud, and Directorate General for Health are continuing epidemiological, microbiological and traceability work.

Schneider also addressed reports of former employees talking about poor hygienic conditions in production plants.

“Regarding the video, let me just tell you that these are old pictures from 2020. They’re not representative of the strict sanitary and quality standards at any Nestlé factory, and they’re also not related to the current situation. So they’re clearly taken out of context, and we do regret the misleading impression that this has created.”

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