Maverick Citizen


Tiger Brands on the hook as lawyers build case for listeriosis victims

Tiger Brands on the hook as lawyers build case for listeriosis victims
A shopping cart with processed meat (Photo: Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko) | Unhappy customers return products at an Enterprise outlet in Germiston. (Photo: Gallo Images / Lucky Morajane) | A Tiger Brands Enterprise outlet in Germiston. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

Five years after a listeriosis outbreak in SA that killed more than 200 people and caused severe illness in many others, human rights lawyers are fighting for compensation for the victims from Tiger Brands, which owned Enterprise Foods, to whose factory in Polokwane, Mpumalanga, the source of the outbreak was traced.

Richard Spoor Inc (RSI) Attorneys and LHL Attorneys are taking on Tiger Brands in a bid to get it to pay compensation to people who were infected or affected by the outbreak of listeriosis in SA between January 2017 and July 2018 that killed 218 people and caused severe illness in hundreds more. They want compensation to cover medical expenses, funeral expenses, loss of wages, pain and suffering as well as a claim for constitutional damages.

The class action has been narrowed down to represent four key groups:

  • People who were infected with listeriosis but did not die;
  • Babies who contracted listeriosis while in utero but did not die;
  • Those who were dependent on an individual who died as a result of listeriosis; and
  • Those who are looking after people who contracted listeriosis.

There are more than 1,000 claimants in the class action.

Catherine Marcus, an attorney at RSI, explained that adding to the complexity of the class action was the investigation into the outbreak that the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) undertook in 2017-18.

“The investigation was threefold, made up of a microbiological investigation, epidemiological investigation and traceback investigation. The evidence that relates to the details of these is complex and relatively new for South African courts to consider,” she said.

The parties were preparing for trial and awaiting evidence from third parties, Marcus said.

“The NICD is critical to this case; it has provided very valuable information relating to its investigation and provided evidence that we believe is irrefutable, confirming Tiger’s responsibility for the outbreak,” she said.

Marcus said the parties were in communication and were endeavouring to move to trial swiftly. “However, no offer of settlement has been received from Tiger, despite overwhelming evidence of their liability,” she said.

Azure Fey, the media and PR manager at Tiger Brands, said: “Tiger Brands’ legal team and the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the class action continue to attend to pre-trial preparations to get the matter ready for trial, when liability will be determined by the court.”

Iris with her daughter baby T, who contracted listeriosis in her mother’s womb and developed a condition called hydrocephalus. ‘It has all been very difficult but I have to stand up for my kids. I have to do what’s right for them,’ said Iris. (Photo: Supplied)

“Tiger Brands reiterates its commitment to ensure that a resolution of the matter is reached in the shortest possible time, in the interest of all parties, particularly the victims of listeriosis.

Fey said that to expedite the matter, Tiger Brands’ legal team and the plaintiffs’ attorneys had approached the NICD for access to its records. However, Tiger Brands had yet to receive the requested information from the NICD.

“The 2018 listeriosis outbreak affected many South Africans. We are saddened by the impact which listeriosis has had on the lives of the victims and those who have lost loved ones from the outbreak,” Fey said.

Food safety in South Africa

The listeriosis outbreak shed light on food safety regulations in South Africa.  Mthokozisi Nkosi, CEO of ASC  Consultants, which specialises in food safety and public health, explained that three government departments — of health; agriculture, forestry and fisheries; and trade and industry — manage food safety. However, the local government is responsible for municipal health services such as enforcing food safety legislation, Nkosi said.

“Environmental health practitioners are the people who are empowered by law to monitor and ensure food is safe for consumption,” he said.  

Nkosi said having three different departments enforcing regulations at different levels was not effective.

The Compulsory Specification for Processed Meat Products is a new regulation intended to enable the inspection of processing plants to avoid a similar tragedy. There is also a regulation which requires processed meat facilities to have a health certification, which means that another authoritative body must be involved, Nkosi said.

“You now have independent auditors, independent municipal inspectors, National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications inspectors (which focus on meat and processed meat), and assignees appointed by the Food Safety Agency that also enforce hygiene standards in the facility,” Nkosi said.

“It is four different stakeholders who are doing almost exactly the same thing to the detriment of the industry, because this is very costly and most businesses are not able to survive this.”

Nkosi said that there was no uniform training offered for inspectors or assignees.

“That is a problem. There isn’t any aerial view to look at everyone and look at how we then combine all these different parties to ensure uniform regulation.”

Nkosi said a streamlined process, regular training (especially for people working with high-risk foods), and proper engagement with all stakeholders would be an ideal start to regulatory reform.

The listeriosis outbreak was a pivotal moment for food safety and public health experts worldwide, underscoring the devastating impact that foodborne illnesses can have on public health, Nkosi said.

“The outbreak emphasised how critical it was to consistently implement robust controls to prevent such illnesses and injuries,” he said.

Victims demand justice  

In Part One of this two-part series Daily Maverick spoke to Iris* whose child Baby T* contracted listeriosis in Iris’s womb and subsequently developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in the brain.

Baby T had to have a ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt — a thin plastic tube that helps drain the fluid from her brain — inserted into her head to manage her condition and, ultimately, save her life.

Iris said although the ligation process was taking a long time, “We just hope and pray that they do the right thing by compensating the ones that have been infected and affected.

“It takes a very long time for justice to be served; I just have to hold on until the case is settled.”

Iris said listeriosis victims want accountability and justice, and that the public should not forget.

“A lot of people obviously forgot. If you weren’t infected or affected you will obviously forget, but that shouldn’t be the case” Iris said.

She said Baby T was a beautiful, happy and helpful child.

“When I have a headache and say I need water, she will be the first one to go get it for me,” she said. “If I go to work without saying bye to her, she will be heartbroken until I call her and say, ‘Bye T, I love you.’ She wants to hear those words every day and I will tell her every day because I love her.” DM 

*Not their real names.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Glyn Fogell says:

    When the outbreak happened, despite clear evidence as to the source, Tiger’s reaction was to deny everything for as long as it could. The plant safety standards had not been adhered to and no-one noticed.

    As for enforcement, the multiple agencies involved is a similar situation to enforcement of food labelling and related Regulations. That is why there are so many issues that fall through the cracks. When you have to rely on a municipal health department to enforce when so many municipalities are dysfunctional and can’t even provide basic services to their residents, how can you expect them to do this as well when their capacity and expertise are limited?

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