Chocolate firm Cadbury is facing legal action for allegedly covering up the discovery of a rare strain of salmonella in its chocolate bars for six months.
Shops across Britain began clearing more than a million Cadbury chocolate bars off their shelves as a precaution after the Food Standards Agency issued a nationwide alert on Friday.
Health experts have not ruled out a link between the contamination at a Cadbury plant in Herefordshire and a sudden, unexplained rise in illnesses caused by the rare bacteria, salmonella montevideo.
Cadbury executives will be asked to explain this week why they failed to tell the FSA and environmental health officials about the discovery in January.
Health officials yesterday refused to rule out taking the company to court. "We're pleased these products are coming off the market. We're going to be taking stock next week and talking to the local authorities involved," an FSA spokesman said.
The firm's senior executives claimed yesterday that the contamination was minimal, and "significantly below" the levels that could cause illness. Cadbury's European president, Matthew Shattock, said only 14 samples out of 7,000 that were tested had "minute traces" of the bug. Since then, another 17,000 samples have been tested and no traces found.
But the FSA has publicly dismissed that defence. Its spokesman said: "We believe the presence of salmonella is unacceptable in food. We were told on Monday that there was a problem occurring in January and that problem has gone on for a number of weeks. We would have expected them to tell us."
The Independent on Sunday has learnt that Cadbury first admitted that its chocolate had been contaminated last Monday - roughly 26 weeks after a pipe at its plant near Leominster was found to be leaking - only because it had been tracked down by the FSA.
The link emerged during an investigation by the Health Protection Agency into the discovery that there had been 45 non-travel-related salmonella montevideo cases already this year in England and Wales, compared to 14 for the same period last year.
The HPA began re-examining anonymous samples contaminated with the bug which it had been sent by commercial food analysis laboratories since the beginning of the year. On 16 June, it found samples from an unnamed confectionery firm.
Last Monday it alerted the FSA, which then approached the private lab about the identity of its client. Alerted by the lab, officials say, Cadbury called the FSA and admitted contamination had taken place.
By Wednesday, the confectioner disclosed further information about which products could have been affected. Despite its denials of a cover-up, it agreed on Thursday to the FSA's demands for an urgent withdrawal of the bars.
Mr Shattock said Cadbury had withdrawn the bars to avoid "confusing" the public, not because these bars were necessarily a health hazard.
He added: "Our responsibility is the welfare of our consumers and I can reassure you that our products are perfectly safe to eat."
The HPA warned yesterday that it is watching the rates of salmonella montevideo poisoning to see if the rate falls in line with the product withdrawal. If a link is detected, Cadbury faces further action.
Concerned customers should contact Cadbury's helpline on 0800 818 181. Uneaten products should be returned to Cadbury Recall, Freepost MID20061, Birmingham B3O 2QZ, to receive a refund voucher
OFF THE SHELVES
Cadbury is withdrawing more than one million bars of chocolate from shop shelves because of possible contamination by salmonella. The seven products affected are:
Cadbury Dairy Milk 1kg - £5.49
Cadbury Dairy Milk Caramel 250g - £1.54
Cadbury Dairy Milk 8 chunk - 69p
Cadbury Freddo - 10p
Cadbury Dairy Milk Turkish 250g - £1.54
Cadbury Dairy Milk Mint 250g - £1.54
Cadbury Dairy Milk Buttons
Easter Egg 105g - 86pReuse content