The latest listeriosis epidemic in South Africa (SA) is considered to be the worst in the world to date. The 61 deaths in SA due to the disease is the highest number reported so far.
A panel of experts met in Pretoria, SA, recently during a National Press Club gathering to discuss the roles the private sector and public can play to halt the epidemic. Linda Jackson from Food Focus, a company involved with food safety compliance, information and education, says the food industry is very concerned. “This is something that can have economic consequences that we cannot afford,” she said.
Dr. Requier Wait, speaker representing Agri SA and food producers, says Agri SA is also deeply concerned and has offered its assistance to the Department of Health and other health authorities. “We would also like to help to spread awareness among our members and members of the public about the disease and its consequences. We make use of our provincial structures and communication channels for this,” he said. The most important thing is to determine the origin of the outbreak and to combat it there.
Jackson and Matlou Setati from the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) has given the assurance that SA’s food is very safe. Wholesalers have upped their requirements and standards a great deal in the last decade and studies have shown that food sold in the informal market is also mostly very safe, Jackson added.
She ascribes this to the fact that most food is prepared soon after purchase and isn’t stored for later uses. “There are no issues around shelf life and the cold chain, but there is concern about a lack of clean, running water and the use of fresh produce, especially leafy vegetables,” she said.
According to Wait, food producers and processors should consider the costs associated with quality control and food safety as an investment in the sustainability of their businesses. “It is of utmost importance that consumers don’t lose their confidence in your product.”
He believes that there is enough traceability to follow an infected product back to its place of origin and Jackson confirmed this. “In audits, certain levels of traceability are required. This is especially relevant to livestock, where compulsory documentation must be supplied to the abattoir to enable traceability.”
She adds that international research indicates that the listeriosis bacteria can possibly occur in leafy vegetables. “Farmers can help by paying attention to the quality of the water they use to irrigate crops, as well as the quality of their fertiliser. It is important to realise that listeriosis can also occur in the soil, so it is not possible to prevent the infection completely,” she says.
“What keeps us up at night, is finding the source of the current outbreak. Everything orbits around finding the source so that we can stop the disease in its tracks,” says Setati. – Nico van Burick