Baby milk linked to salmonella

Parents swamp help line after team at laboratory finds rare strain of bacterium
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The Independent Online
Thousands of worried parents called a special helpline yesterday after a popular brand of baby-milk powder was linked with a rare form of salmonella.

Packets of Milupa's Milumil for Hungrier Babies, which is fed to around 25,000 infants in the United Kingdom, were cleared from supermarkets, corner shops and chemists after the Department of Health issued an urgent food-hazard warning.

The company, which is now owned by the Dutch Nutricia firm, stopped production of the brand at its factory in Colmar, France, which exports the powder solely to the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic.

Helen Messenger, the corporate-affairs manager for Milupa, said that the 45 lines to their help centre in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, were constantly in use from parents. "We've had a few thousands calls so far." The company said it had been co- operating fully with the Department of Health after being notified of the problem on Thursday and was launching its own investigation to see where any infection may have started.

Dennis Segal, the managing director, said: "The company would like to stress that its rigorous testing procedures at the factory have never shown the slightest sign of contamination."

Parents have been told not to use any of the powdered milk, which comes in 450g and 900g packets, and to throw away any old scoops used in preparing the milk.

The Department of Health has also urged anyone anxious about the health of their child after using the powder, and who may have symptoms of a gastric infection, to contact a health visitor or their GP.

Of the 12 children in Scotland, Yorkshire, the Midlands and the south- east who suffered from the rare salmonella anatum infection between last October and earlier this month, two were taken to hospital and only one was detained. All the infants, most of whom are aged under six months, have now recovered.

The potential link with the milk powder was discovered by scientists at the Public Health Laboratory Service. This form of salmonella normally only occurs in adult cases about 50 times a year.

Examining the 12 cases against a control group of well children, scientists found that at least 10 of those ill had used Milumil, against just three or four in the control group.

At a Whitehall press conference yesterday the chief medical officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, said: "The evidence was sufficiently strong in relation to this particularly vulnerable group - infants under six months - for us to withdraw the product." The Public Health Laboratory Service will continue to search for any actual trace of the infection in the powder.

A spokeswoman for the Public Health Laboratory Service said the advice to parents was to be vigilant, but not to panic. Though the strain of salmonella was rare, it was not one of the most dangerous.

The powder is sold under the name Milumil for Hungrier Bottle-Fed Babies, a casein or curd-based milk substitute. The product has around 5 per cent of the market, with sales between pounds 6m and pounds 7m a year. Milupa has a 9.5 per cent share of the overall UK milk-powder market.

Yesterday's scare was seized on by critics of the milk-powder industry in the UK. Pattie Rundall, the international co-ordinator of Baby Milk Action, wants Britain to follow some Scandinavian countries in banning promotion of the products. Such countries had far higher instances of breast-feeding, said Ms Rundall, who added that children fed on bottles were up to 10 times more likely to suffer gastro-enteritis than breast- fed children, with big knock-on costs to the health service.

Labour's consumer affairs spokesman, Nigel Griffiths, attacked what he said appeared to be an "unacceptable" lapse in standards, and called for more random checking of batches of milk powders.

Rosemary Dodds, policy research officer at the National Childbirth Trust, said the scare would add to parents' concerns over using powdered baby milk, particularly in view of recent health questions raised over the presence of phthalates in some brands.

Ms Dodds also said it showed it was time for large baby-food manufacturers to start switching resources away from "inappropriate marketing" policies to encourage women in the Third World to use powdered milk, towards better quality control. Ms Dodds added that Milupa had been criticised in a recent report by the International Formula Monitoring Group for adopting bad practices in relation to marketing its formulas, particularly in Poland.

A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Nursing praised the Department of Health's handling of the scare. "On this occasion, both the company involved and the DoH seem to have acted quickly to make sure that health professionals have the information they need so that parents know what action to take," she said.

There was a big scare in May last year when nine brands of infant feed tested by the Ministry of Agriculture were found to contain phthalates. These are chemicals used in plastics and packaging and which in animal tests have been found to reduce fertility.

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