Cadbury has said it will consider compensating victims of salmonella poisoning after health officials named its chocolate as the prime suspect for an outbreak earlier this year.

Britain's biggest confectioner promised to "take seriously" any case arising from a mysterious spate of infections throughout the spring, which put two children in hospital.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) concluded that consumption of infected Cadbury's products was the "most credible explanation" for 37 cases of salmonella poisoning reported between March and July this year.

The statement is another blow to the reputation of Cadbury - against whom the Food Standards Agency and local authorities are considering a prosecution for breach of health and safety legislation.

The company took five months to inform the Food Standards Agency that salmonella had infected chocolate crumb at its Marlbrook plant in Herefordshire in January.

Even then, as it withdrew one million bars of seven products from sale last month, the FTSE 100 company was insisting its chocolate was safe to eat.

Yesterday, the HPA said that of 49 non-travel-related "primary cases" of Samonella Montevideo since 1 March, 37 were of the same strain of salmonella, SmvdX07, that was found in Cadbury's products including Dairy Milk.

Detailed food histories for 15 of the patients - whose average age was two - discounted many common sources of food poisoning such as eating out and takeaways. The only strong link was that 13 of them had eaten Cadbury products.

During their inquiry, health officials considered the distribution of cases across the country and the onset of the illness while the infected chocolate was on sale. The HPA announced: "The outbreak control team concluded that consumption of products made by Cadbury Schweppes was the most credible explanation for the outbreak."

Cadbury - which microbiologists criticised for selling the bars after tests first discovered salmonella in January - refused to say whether it agreed with the HPA's conclusion.

But it said in a statement: "Clearly we regret that people have been unwell. We have already announced that we have changed our protocol [scrapping the company's previous policy that chocolate with low levels of salmonella was safe to sell] because for us the consumer's desire for no risk at all is paramount and any product showing any traces of salmonella will be destroyed."

A spokeswoman added: "If any people come forward we will take their situation seriously and consider their case."

The HPA estimates that it is told of between one-fifth and one-third of all salmonella cases, suggesting the total number of cases linked to Cadbury was between 111 and 185.