Townships hardest hit by listeriosis outbreak

Practising good food hygiene is key

Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi announced that processed meat was the source of South Africa’s latest and worst listeriosis outbreak on record, with nearly 1 000 cases identified since the beginning of 2017. Officials identified listeria sequence-type 6 as the cause of the outbreak and said the strain was found at Tiger Brands’ Enterprise factory in Polokwane. Calls for a recall on Enterprise cold meat products went out immediately with Tiger Brands recalling 3 500 tons of its ready-to-eat chilled meat products within a week. In addition to the recall, the company closed both its Enterprise plants.

Other retail giants, including Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Shoprite, wasted little time recalling certain products from the public and pulling products from their shelves. By then, panic had already set in among thousands of consumers of this major source of protein for many, and a fast-food favourite.

What is listeriosis and how did it find its way into a township staple food?

Affordable cold meat products are the bread and butter of fast-food sellers in our townships.

Listeriosis is a rare infection caused mainly by eating food contaminated with a specific bacterium which is found in soil, water and vegetation, but, to understand the severity of this outbreak, one must first understand the facts of why township trade is the worst affected.

Affordable cold meat products are the bread and butter of fast-food sellers in our townships. Which tavern doesn’t have a kota (the traditional processed meat in a quarter loaf of bread) or the “russian or vienna and chips special” on the menu for a patron looking for a filling and affordable meal? Most township school lunches contain polony sandwiches or russians and viennas and it is a quick supper in many households as well.

Nomsa Komsana, who has been a fast-food vendor in Jabulani, Soweto, for more than 6 years, is beside herself with worry. “I specialise in kotas and on a good day I would sell 50 to 60 of them. Now my customers are afraid and I have to prepare my kotas with mince, which is too expensive and my profit is lower. My customers have disappeared and the ones I still have don’t trust the mince I am using. I have to reassure them that it is safe, but is it really?” asks Nomsa.

For many like Nomsa, trust has been broken and we can only await the outcome of further investigations for the truth to come out. Until then, township trade in fast food will carry on, without cold meat products, because we simply have to.

Listeriosis can be treated if reported on time and can be prevented if good hygiene is practised. The Department of Health has urged all consumers to adhere to basic food hygiene principles as outlined in the World Health Organisation’s Five Keys to Safer Food programme.

The core 'commandments’ of food hygiene are:

  • Keep clean: wash your hands before handling food and often during food preparation
  • Separate raw and cooked: separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods
  • Cook thoroughly: cook foods thoroughly, especially meat, poultry, eggs and seafood
  • Keep food at safe temperatures: refrigerate and reheat foods correctly; and
  • Use safe water and raw materials: use safe water or make it safe (by boiling); choose foods processed for safety such as pasteurised dairy products; wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, especially if eaten raw.

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