Officials in the Department of Health are pushing for a review of the key laws governing food safety, after a listeria outbreak exposed shortcomings in their powers to obtain potentially life-saving information from companies and private laboratories.
A department spokesman, Popo Maja, said on Monday a lack of co-operation by the industry had hindered the government’s attempts to trace the source of the world’s worst listeria outbreak, which began more than a year ago.
A total of 948 laboratory-confirmed cases and 180 deaths were recorded from January 2017 to March 2.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases eventually traced the strain of Listeria monocytogenes responsible for 90% of the cases to polony made in Tiger Brands’s Enterprise Foods factory in Polokwane.
Polony products containing a different strain of the deadly bacteria were also traced to Enterprise Foods’s Germiston factory and to RCL Foods’s Wolwehoek processing plant.
Officials want to revise the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act to strengthen their hand in getting information from companies about food-borne pathogens detected in their facilities and in obtaining samples from private laboratories in the event of an outbreak, said the department’s director of food control, Penny Campbell. The provision of such information and samples is voluntary.
Campbell said the department had repeatedly written to private laboratories and food industry associations requesting information to help trace the source of the outbreak but had been largely ignored.
None of the key players from the South African Meat Processors Association were co-operative, and only 23 of the 83 members of the Consumer Goods Council provided a list of listeria-contaminated food.
The National Laboratory Association did not respond to their call for assistance in tracing the source of the outbreak.
Only Milk SA proved helpful and provided detailed information about the safety of raw and pasteurised milk, she said.
Juno Thomas, head of the Centre for Enteric Diseases at the national institute, said their investigation had been “retarded because of the constant challenges with the food industry” who “should have been more proactive and engaging”.
“There was a lot of resistance and mistrust from companies, and their response was very limited. Only two private food testing laboratories shared listeria isolates for [genome] sequencing. The others refused, citing confidentiality issues,” Thomas said.
Campbell said the act also had to be revised to give environmental health practitioners the powers to order a product recall, rather than relying on provisions in the Consumer Protection Act, which vested these powers in the National Consumer Commission.
Now that the institute has identified the source of the deadly listeria outbreak, the onus is on the food companies to determine how their products had become contaminated. Neither RCL Foods nor Tiger Brands had responded to Business Day’s request for comment at the time of publication.
The ANC called on the South African Bureau of Standards to determine whether the packaging material used in the implicated products was up to the required standard.
“We are not saying it [the packaging] is the cause, but we are not leaving any stone unturned,” said the ANC’s acting national communications manager, Donovan Cloete.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s health ministry announced a ban on the import and sale of certain South African processed meat products on Tuesday in the wake of the listeria outbreak, making it the first East African nation to ban ready-to-eat meat products from SA.
“In order to ensure the health of the public is protected and as a precautionary measure you are required to stop the importation and sale of these products” and recall those already on sale, the Kenyan health ministry wrote in a note to the country’s health officers.
Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have also blocked the import of cold meat products made by Enterprise Foods and RCL.
Class Action Suit pending
SA’s biggest class action lawsuit could take place if families of those who died and those hospitalised after contracting listeriosis decide to sue.
“There is a possibility of a class action. It could be SA’s real action. Whoever is responsible [for the outbreak] could face class action‚” consumer lawyer Janusz Luterek said.
He said relatives of people who had died and people who were hospitalised after contracting the disease could sue for damages. “The amount of damages one can sue for [changes] … from person to person. If the person who died was a breadwinner‚ their family can sue for loss of support‚” Luterek said.
“The damages claimed and the legal costs incurred could be huge — many millions may be awarded per deceased victim‚ several million per victim requiring long-term care‚ thousands per victim that recovered‚” Luterek said.