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An employee walks in front of the Celia dairy company's infant milk factory, which is part of the Lactalis Group, in Craon, western France, January 12, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

(reuters_tickers)

By Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) - French dairy group Lactalis will pay damages to families affected by a Salmonella contamination at one of its plants producing baby milk, the company's Chief Executive Emmanuel Besnier told the weekly Journal du Dimanche.

On Friday, Lactalis widened a product recall to cover all infant formula made at its Craon plan, regardless of the manufacture date, in an effort to contain the fallout from a health scare that risks damaging France's strategic agribusiness in overseas markets.

Salmonella infections can be life-threatening and the families of three dozen children who have fallen sick in France as a result of the contaminated baby milk have announced a raft of lawsuits.

"We will compensate every family which has suffered a prejudice," Besnier told the newspaper in a rare interview published on Sunday.

Besnier did not say how much the damages might amount to.

Implementing the global recall will be challenging. Privately owned Lactalis, one of the world's biggest dairies, exports its baby food products to 83 countries across Europe, Africa and Asia.

The recall involves up to 12 million tins of baby milk.

"It's not easy to evaluate the number of items that need to be returned because we don't know what's been consumer already," he said.

Friday's recall was the third in a month and Lactalis has come under fire for its botched response. Besnier also told the French weekly that the company had acted as quickly and efficiently as possible and denied slowing the process to curb losses.

Besnier has also been criticized for failing to speak out publicly during the salmonella scare.

While his family are France's 11th wealthiest, according to a 2017 ranking by Challenges magazine, the dairy tycoon has long shunned the public limelight and schmoozing with politicians.

His workers nickname him the "invisible man."

"We're a discreet business. In this region there is a mentality of 'work first, speak later," he said. But he acknowledged lessons had been learned during the past few weeks.

Lactalis has become an industry giant, with annual sales of 17 billion euros ($20.73 billion) and 18,900 employees across some 40 countries.

He said the Craon plant was likely to remain closed for several months.

The recall risks damaging Lactalis in China, a fast-growing market for baby food and dairy products where scares after melamine-tainted baby milk led to the deaths of six children in 2008.

That scandal caused distrust in locally produced infant formula and benefited foreign suppliers such as Nestle, Danone and Lactalis.

(Reporting by Richard Lough; editing by Diane Craft)

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