The Democratic Alliance (DA) said although Listeria monocytogenes was found at Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken plants, they are not the primary sources of the outbreak.
Comments come after the Departments of Health (DoH); Trade and Industry (DTI) and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) briefed Parliament yesterday (Wednesday).
“It is now apparent that the government seems to be blaming bureaucratic processes and has opted for prematurely scapegoating Enterprise and Rainbow because it does not have proper emergency plans in place to contain this outbreak,” said DA.
Investigation of origin
Parliament heard creation of a food control agency must be fast-tracked to ensure strengthened inter-governmental relations and coordination of food safety practices.
A joint DoH, DTI and DAFF statement said investigation on the origin, including Mechanically Deboned Meat (MDM), of Listeria sequence types is underway.
Dr Rob Davies, minister of Trade and Industry, said if imported products are found to be the origin of the outbreak, action will be taken to protect food safety in the country.
Imported MDM is being sampled for microbial contamination and since March, testing includes Listeria.
The departments also urged trade partners not to instate ‘unfair’ bans on South African products.
WHO: Possibility of more than one outbreak
A total of 982 laboratory-confirmed listeriosis cases have been reported to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) since January 2017. Outcome of illness is known for 687 patients of whom 189 (28%) died.
Dr Lucia Anelich
Dr Lucia Anelich said the country has no enforceable regulation on maximum amount of L. monocytogenes permitted in RTE foods so many firms look to international regulations.
“Unfortunately, while South Africa has strict regulations on Salmonella and E. coli, there is no set maximum for the amount of Listeria monocytogenes that is permitted in RTE food. There is only a guideline - the South African National Standard (SANS) 885 for processed meats. This guideline is voluntary and is not an enforceable regulation.”
A total of 91% of the strains from patients belong to L. monocytogenes Sequence Type 6 (ST6). The same sequence type was identified in a ready-to-eat processed meat product called ‘Polony’.
The strain was found in the processing environment of Enterprise Foods’ Polokwane facility. Tiger Brands temporarily closed Polokwane, Pretoria and Germiston Enterprise factories.
Enterprise-branded products accounted for 28.2% of processed meat sales in South Africa in 2017.
However, 9% of cases were infected with different strains so may indicate more than one outbreak is ongoing, said the World Health Organization (WHO).
Lab tests on environmental samples from RCL Foods’ Wolwehoek facility found L. monocytogenes but whole genome sequencing showed it was not the ST6 outbreak strain.
“While there is no evidence of ST6 in the sampled RCL Foods’ retail polony products or the production facility, the presence of L. monocytogenes of other sequence types in retail polony chubs as well as the production facility do also cause the disease and require corrective actions and monitoring,” said the Ministry of Health.
Listeriosis was made a notifiable medical condition in South Africa in December last year.
A total of 23 lab-confirmed cases have been reported since a recall in early March. Of these, 17 have been interviewed; ten consumed implicated items and two had direct contact with recalled products.
Trade bans and cases in other countries
Enterprise (a division of Tiger Brands) and three of its retailers export to 15 countries in the African region. Most are not aware of listeriosis and some report zero cases because it is not a notifiable disease condition and is not being tested for.
Namibia confirmed one case in a man admitted to hospital in March but a link to the South African outbreak has not been confirmed.
WHO said it was concerned export of implicated products may have resulted in cases in other countries.
Twelve of 15 countries have recalled implicated processed meat products and banned such imports while three have also banned imports of dairy products, fruits and vegetables.
“While countries have to strengthen their national food safety and disease surveillance systems to protect the health of their populations, this should be done in line with provisions of the International Health Regulations and scientific principles,” said WHO.
“WHO calls upon Member States to strengthen their national food safety policy and disease surveillance systems as a prerequisite to ensure a safe food supply for their populations and prevent future listeriosis outbreaks.
“In addition, countries are urged to pay more attention to common foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella species, Campylobacter jejuni, E. coli and L. monocytogenes and to make listeriosis a notifiable disease, if it is not already.”
The agency added it does not recommend any travel or trade restrictions other than the recall of processed meat products indicated by the South African Government.