Evelyn Wilson, national assembly member, said the record of the largest listeriosis outbreak was ‘not one to be proud of’ and blamed it on the shortage of environmental health inspectors saying illness could have been avoided if factories were inspected every three months.
The World Health Organization (WHO) previously said there was inadequate funding for lab testing of so many samples and insufficient capacity for data analysis to identify links between cases.
Listeria monocytogenes was isolated from polony manufactured by Enterprise (a division of Tiger Brands) and Rainbow (a division of RCL Foods). The strain type was ST6 – matching most clinical isolates from patients.
Enterprise and Rainbow response
The pathogen was isolated from 30% of environmental samples from the Enterprise factory in Polokwane. The outbreak strain, ST6, was confirmed in 16 environmental samples.
Preliminary results found several RTE processed meat products from the Enterprise facility in Germiston contain L. monocytogenes but the sequence type is not yet known.
Enterprise has suspended operations at manufacturing facilities in Polokwane and Germiston and halted supply to trade whilst it does a deep cleaning process.
Lawrence MacDougall, CEO of Tiger Brands, said he was ‘deeply concerned’ by the detection of ST6 in its Polokwane factory.
“Together with our staff, business partners and the relevant authorities we are working to mitigate any further risks to consumers. We are well advanced in the national recall of all ready-to-eat chilled processed meat products, which we initiated on Sunday.”
Recalled products from retail are being kept in a quarantine warehouse awaiting incineration.
An investigation of the RCL Wolwehoek production facility is ongoing. Polony products have tested positive for L. monocytogenes but sequence types are not ST6.
RCL Foods said product samples analysed at an independent lab have tested negative for Listeria. It is awaiting results for environmental swabs including DNA analysis.
It has halted production at its Wolwehoek facility and recalled polony products made at the site.
DOH to assist families in litigation
The Department of Health is to assist families of those who died from listeriosis, including advice in litigation against food companies, according to Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, health minister in a briefing to Members of Parliament.
Minister Motsoaledi said most cases were found in Gauteng (62%), Western Cape (13%) and KwaZulu-Natal (7%). The three provinces accounted for 82% of infections.
Dr Motsoaledi said as listeriosis was not previously notifiable, health workers did not have to inform any authority when encountering a person with the disease.
“Hence there was no central data in any part of the country where people could refer to. For this reason, when an outbreak occurs it was not going to be easy to pick it up.”
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 967 cases have been reported since 2017 and of the 669 with known outcomes 183 (27%) patients have died. A total of 749 cases were reported in 2017 and 218 this year.
Most (93/109) infected people interviewed by NICD reported eating ready-to-eat processed meat products, most commonly polony, followed by viennas/sausages and other ‘cold meats’.
Risk communication messages have advised the public not to eat all processed meat sold as ready-to-eat and food chains have recalled RTE meat products.
RMIF ‘Listeria hysteria’ and WHO comment
The Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF) said lack of detail has resulted in misinformation which is ‘detrimental’ to the consumer and the South African Red Meat Industry.
The group, which represents the red meat sector, said it was ‘deeply concerned’ that the entire processed meat industry has been implicated without justification.
“In this regard, the average consumer is being led into a Listeria hysteria which is having unfortunate consequences for families who rely on processed meat as their source of protein.
“The devastating consequences emanating from the media coverage thus far as a result of the minister’s media release has had far reaching and catastrophic impact on the processed meat industry and the red meat industry in its entirety.”
WHO said identification of the outbreak source provides ‘critical guidance’ for implementation of prevention and control measures.
“[Risk] communication to the public regarding food recalls and ensuring removal of all potentially contaminated products from stores and regular inspection of food processing plants are needed to control this outbreak and prevent future cases.
“[Ways] to identify and ensure removal of all potentially contaminated products from the food supply are needed to bring this outbreak to a close.”
The agency added food safety and inspections need to be strengthened by public health authorities and measures to prevent future listeriosis outbreaks should be considered.
Company’s members of CGCSA
Registration for exports of RCL and Enterprise have been temporarily suspended.
The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) welcomed the National Consumer Commission (NCC) move to recall processed meat products manufactured by Enterprise and Rainbow.
“Retailer and manufacturer members of the CGCSA have instituted immediate removal and recall of all products affected in compliance with the directive…because the safety and health of consumers is of paramount importance and our members will fully comply with the recall directive.
“CGCSA members also have ongoing routine testing schedules in place to monitor all food products for pathogens and to take action if these organisms are detected. The members have, as a result of the latest outbreak, taken additional precautionary measures to ensure the safety of food products sold to consumers.”
Greg Solomon, McDonald’s SA CEO, said it serves eight million customers every month in South Africa and food safety is the highest priority in its 259 businesses.
“Our supplier’s food safety systems are aggressively audited using independent, third-party auditors to ensure compliance with McDonald’s global food safety standards as well as local legislations. Suppliers have also been made aware to be extra vigilant during this time and to intensify their microbial programme through vigorous testing.”