First, there is a sense of guilt. “We think, we don’t sleep anymore. We wonder how we got there. What did we do wrong?” The features drawn, Pierre *, an employee of the factory of Caudry (North) where were manufactured the Fraîch’Up pizzas of the brand Buitoni contaminated with Escherichia coli, today feels the need to indulge. Since the scandal broke, he feels “responsible somewhere” of what happened. A feeling shared by several of his colleagues, including Patrick*: “These pizzas were our life, our pridehe explains in a strangled voice. Our pride has turned to shame.”
Then there is the shock of the closure of the factory in which they and other employees have sometimes worked for several decades. On April 1, a decree from the Nord prefecture ordered the cessation of production “until compliance with hygiene regulations”. Patrick, Pierre and their colleagues then go around in circles. They continue to receive their remuneration but worry about their future.
Finally, there is the need to give their version of the facts on the “serious shortcomings” pointed out in the decree of the Nord prefecture to justify the closure of the factory. These shortcomings, the employees do not dispute. But they want to explain themselves. It is for all these reasons that, along with other colleagues, they agreed to speak to the Cellule investigation de Radio France.
They specify from the outset that they have no information on the origin of the contamination. A judicial inquiry is underway to help understand the causes of the poisoning which claimed 56 victims, including 55 children aged 1 to 15, and which caused the death of two of them.
The investigation nevertheless revealed shortcomings in the management of the plant. These had already been pointed out by the DGCCRF (General Directorate for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention) in three reports dating from 2012, 2014 and 2020 (as revealed by online investigative media Disclose). We then discovered the presence of mold, rust and flaking paint in the factory, as well as food moths on the production line of Fraîch’Up pizzas.
>> Buitoni: hygiene breaches reported for ten years
The accounts of the employees shed light on these abuses. “In 2012, Nestlé implemented a new way of managing the site. We call it the Lean methodexplains Maryse Tréton, from the CGT agrifood federation. The objective is to reduce as much as possible all the time that is not dedicated to production. We reduce cleaning times and preventive maintenance times to maximize production.”
Three years later, in 2015, this reduction in cleaning time will be included in a so-called “competitiveness” plan. “Until 2015, the factory operated with 16 hours of production and 8 hours of cleaning per dayspecify Patrick and Pierre. After 2015, we almost double the production time to reach 27 hours a day (in three shifts of 9 hours) and we almost halve the cleaning time which goes from 8 hours to 4 hours 45.
According to them, the consequences of this reorganization are not long in coming: “For us, that meant going faster on cleaning. So the priority was to clean the production line and the machines. But not what was around, such as the walls and the ceilings. It was no longer possible to do everything.” Asked about this point, the management of Nestlé France confirms that the cleaning time is now less than 5 hours. But she specifies that she has “systematic microbiological sampling in different strategic areas of the site.”
This reduction in cleaning time would have had other consequences. According to the employees whom the Cellule investigation of Radio France met, certain zones of the factory which were cleaned at least once a year before 2015, would not be any more. “Beforeexplains one of them, the factory was closed for three weeks in August. During this time, the cleaning company that had a contract with the factory could do deep cleaning. Since then, Nestlé only wants to stop the factory for a single week in the summer. So the general condition has deteriorated.”
In the bakery workshop where the dough for Fraîch’Up pizzas is made, “before 2015, air conditioning ducts were cleaned every six months to a year, explains Peter. Now, it is no longer done and it is clogged. When it is 40 degrees outside, as there is sheet metal on the roofs, the temperature rises very high in the workshop, it is very hot, it can go up to 27 degrees. Gilles Salvat, Deputy Director General of the Research and Reference Center of ANSES, the National Agency for Food Safety, specifies: “Products such as flour, which come in powder form, create dust in the factory environment which will then clog these filtration sleeves. They have to be dismantled and cleaned much more regularly. Otherwise, we alters the operation of air conditioning and ventilation systems.The consequence of this alteration can be, according to the scientist, a rise in temperature which leads to a risk of rapid development of Escherichia coli bacteria, even if there is nothing to confirm that this is what happened in the Buitoni factory.” Asked specifically about this point, the management of Nestlé France did not respond.
Sanitation in other areas of the factory apparently left something to be desired. These are the silos, these four giant factory towers that are very visible from afar, and which each store 25 tonnes of flour. “Before, they were cleaned once a year, in August when the factory was closed. Since 2015, to my knowledge, they have not been cleaned”, says Patrick. However, according to the European guide to good hygiene practices for the storage of cereals, which we consulted, storage areas should be cleaned at least once a year.
Another breach noted in the closure order issued by the prefecture: the presence of rodents in the bakery workshop. Patrick says he observed a possible crossing point for the rats: “Right next to the Fraîch’Up pizza production line, he says, there is a room where we put the raw materials. The driver [le livreur, NDLR] doesn’t close the door every time he gets a pallet off the truck. So the door stays open and rodents can get in.” Yet here again, according to Gilles Salvat, the presence of rodents is “Obviously to be absolutely avoided in the food industry, because these are particularly important sources of bacterial infections, including potentially the bacterium Escherichia coli, even if it is rarely the main source.” When questioned, the management of Nestlé told us that it has made the fight against rodents a priority for several years. She specifies that she is committed to strengthening this fight with a view to restarting her factory.
The track of contamination inside the factory is one of the hypotheses put forward by scientists, but it is not the only one. It is not excluded that the flour could have been contaminated before being delivered to the factory. This possibility was put forward by Christophe Cornu, CEO of Nestlé France, in a interview at Figaro last July. And it is taken seriously by Éric Oswald, professor of bacteriology at the Faculty of Medicine of Toulouse Purpan. “It would not be usual but the flour may have been contaminated by wheat soiled by spreading or manure in the fields. The bacteria is thus latent in the flourexplains the professor. And it is when this flour will be remixed with water and brought to temperature that we risk having a development of the bacteria.
To deal with this eventuality, there is a type of flour that is heat-treated, that is, heated to kill bacteria. It is regularly used for the manufacture of raw pasta, more conducive to the presence of bacteria. And Buitoni, according to employees, used this type of flour until 2021 to make the dough for its Fraîch’Up range. But they claim that after this date, another non-thermally treated flour would have been used. “At the beginning of 2021, there was a change of flour when we had been making Fraîch’Up with the same one for 20 years, we were told. We had never had a problem with this pasteurized flour. And we were told: now you are going to use a classic dough that is not pasteurized. We don’t understand why.” Asked about this point, the management of Nestlé confirmed to us that it had changed the recipe for Fraîch’Up pizzas, but without giving any details on the nature of the flour it now uses.
And yet… In 2009 in the United States, contamination with unheated flour poisoned nearly 80 people. “The victims had eaten raw cookie dough from Nestlé’s Toll Cookie Dough brand which contained the bacterium Escherichia coli”, explains Ilana Korchia, a French lawyer from the Marler Clark firm, which specializes in diseases of agri-food origin. This firm defended 40 victims who had to be hospitalized, ten of them developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS). Ilana Korchia sees similarities in this affair with the Buitoni scandal in France: “It’s the same brand, the same type of raw dough and the flour was already involved.” Following this contamination, in 2010 the American authorities classified the flour in the category of products “presenting a danger” and can cause outbreaks of Escherichia coli. Since then, in the United States, products to be eaten raw have been made with heat-treated flour. And the mention “Safe” (“without danger”) is clearly indicated on the packaging.
*Names have been changed