The listeriosis outbreak has highlighted two key issues which emerged during Wednesday’s update in Parliament. A lack of standardised food safety guidelines and the possible economic implications of the outbreak which left MPs wanting to know what will be done next about listeriosis. By SUNÉ PAYNE.
Almost three weeks since meat products were recalled by the national department of health, listeriosis came under the spotlight during a joint meeting between parliamentary committees and their departments on Wednesday. Present in the meeting were officials from the departments of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, trade and industry as well as health.
Immediately, MPs questioned the department of Trade and Industry on why there are no specific guidelines for standardised manufacturing and preparation for meat products, particularly in light of listeriosis found in cold, processed meats such as polony and Vienna sausages.
DA MP Evelyn Wilson who requested that there needs to be uniform standards for food manufacturing and processing, especially for cold meat preparation.
“It’s pretty clear we need to write a proper standard for all meat products,” said Rob Davies, minister of Trade and Industry.
Several times during the meeting members of the agriculture, forestry and fisheries committee as well as the health committee called for a food safety summit to discuss how to ensure a standardised guideline on food safety was developed in order to prevent another outbreak of listeriosis.
Rosina Semenya, chairperson of the portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries told Daily Maverick the dates for the proposed food safety summit would depend on government, but said the departments present at Wednesday’s meeting would have to return to the committee in three months for another update on the outbreak.
During the meeting several other issues came out, including employment, trade bans and communication issues between communities and departments.
To date, the particular deadly S6 strain of listeriosis has been found in three products from Tiger Brands and another strain was found in Rainbow Chicken.
Nevashnee Naicker, spokesperson for Tiger Brands told Daily Maverick that four facilities belonging to the company have been closed thus far – one abattoir and three manufacturing facilities. These are factories in Pretoria, Germiston and Polokwane.
Across the four facilities, Tiger Brands employs 1,800 permanent staff. “The staff are at work,” said Naicker, who confirmed that the four affected facilities are closed until further notice and not manufacturing anything at the moment. Staff at the affected facilities however, are busy deep cleaning the facilities. Naicker describes the cleaning as a “complete overhaul”.
In the meeting it was revealed that countries such as Mozambique, Botswana, Seychelles and Zimbabwe have banned the import of locally produced sausages, at a cost of R100-million thus far, according to Niki Kruger, chief director: International and Economic Development within the department of Trade and Industry.
Kruger said under the World Trade Organisation countries would be entitled to stop South African exports in order to protect human life, animal or plant life.
Several countries have decided to stop importing South African sausages until the crisis is solved, said Kruger, who stressed the importance of clear communication especially to prevent further bans of produce.
She cited Rwanda banning South African meat and fresh produce, because messages were being spread that listeriosis occurred in the soil where vegetables and fruit were produced.
Minister Davies said that “if there is a listeria outbreak in another country with meat that comes from SA, we are in big, big trouble”.
Health committee chairperson Lindelwa Dunjwa, said to all the departmental officials present, “how do we make sure we empower our people?”
This was emphasised by EFF MP Dr Sophie Thembekwayo, who wanted to know if there were any plans to educate school children who buy food from vendors, including sending environmental health practitioners into schools to teach pupils about listeriosis.
Committee chair Semenya asked that the departments provide clear communication on the disease, so that MPs could go back to their constituencies to spread the correct messages around the outbreak.
“We’ve got a problem with listeria, not hysteria” said Davies, stressing that science and evidence need to guide departments to deal with the crisis.
“We cover all the media, especially the local media, to ensure the message is spread in local languages” said Jeannette Hunter, deputy director general in the Department of Health, responsible for primary health care. During the meeting Hunter said the department does have a communication plan surrounding disease outbreaks, especially now with the spread of listeria.
This particular S6 strain of the listeria disease is the first outbreak since the disease was first identified in South Africa in 1977. It has typically seen 60-80 cases detected and treated annually, but it had to be notified to the public at the end of 2017, because it had spread rapidly and had unusual behaviour, resulting in the deaths of 185 people. DM
Daily Maverick has published various articles highlighting the outbreak, read them here:
Photo: A deli worker in Cape Town selects processed meat for a customer, 5 March 2018. Photo:Leila Dougan