FRANCE- Nestlé has temporarily suspended production at a frozen pizza factory in France, which was at the center of a fatal E. coli outbreak reportedly linked to flour contamination at the site last year.

Nestlé said the fallout from the closure, coupled with global inflation, has led to a drop in sales of frozen pizzas, which made the factory untenable.

Despite the temporal closure of the plant, all the factory’s employees will keep their jobs and salaries for the time being, the company told unions in a meeting.

A spokesperson for Nestlé noted that the future of the Caudry site, which produces frozen pizzas for its Buitoni brand, has not yet been decided.

He highlighted: “Despite all the efforts made to ensure that the factory restarted in the best conditions in December 2022, the deterioration in the outlook for orders for its pizzas has forced Nestlé France to react. At this stage, no decision has been made for the future of the Caudry plant.”

“The market for frozen pizzas has fallen by 20% in one year,” a decline that “has had an even greater impact on the Buitoni brand,” a spokesman for Nestlé France told French news Agency AFP.

France’s national public health agency, Santé Publique France, made its first statement on rising cases of the haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) or Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) on 25 February last year. Dozens of children fell sick after eating contaminated food – and two died.

After five days of initiating a recall of Fraîch’Up pizzas marketed since June 2021, health officials ordered production at the Caudry factory to cease and the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into alleged involuntary manslaughter at the start of April.

According to the company’s internal analyses, “the most likely hypothesis” is “flour contamination.”

Inspections carried out by health authorities in recent years had reported, “the presence of rodents” and the “lack of maintenance and cleanliness of the manufacturing, storage, and passage areas” at the factory, according to the order of the city hall of April 1.

In December, Nestlé received the go-ahead to reopen one of the plant’s two lines, which was not affected by the recall last March.

Stéphane Derammelaere, a member of the French union Force Ouvrière, estimated the factory’s orders were at 450 compared to the 3,500 initially planned for 2023.

He told AFP his colleagues were “devastated”, adding: “We did not expect the distributors to slam the door on us.”

“I think it’s over, ” concluded the unionist, indicating that Nestlé’s “verdict” is scheduled for March 30th.

The mayor of Caudry, Frédéric Bricout, in an interview with AFP, asked Nestlé, “a global group that makes billions in profits to replace the production of pizzas with another product in Caudry.”

In a statement co-signed with the president of the regional council of Hauts-de-France, Xavier Bertrand, the mayor, demanded a meeting with Nestlé France “to know” its “true intentions” for Caudry.

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