Katherine Atkinson

As of 2 March 2018, there have been almost 1000 cases of and 180 deaths caused by listeriosis in South Africa. The outbreak is believed to be the largest outbreak of listeriosis that the world has ever seen, and has created a considerable amount of concern in South Africa. On 4 March 2018, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced that the source of the outbreak is identified to be “polony and products from an Enterprise Foods factory in Polokwane,” says TimesLIVE. Deli meats and foods which do not require heating or cooking are known to have previously caused outbreaks of listeriosis.

The discovery of the source of the listeriosis outbreak is a considerable breakthrough in terms of controlling the disease. On 1 March, prior to the discovery of the source, Perdeby spoke to Prof Lise Korsten, who is a full-time professor at the department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology at the University of Pretoria. Prof Korsten says that for “an effective national food control system,” South Africa must not only identify “the original source” of the listeriosis outbreak but also “implement effective product recall” and “put the required resources in place.” News24 say that Listeria has been traced to an “Enterprise facility in Germiston” and “a Rainbow chicken facility in the Free State.” According to News24, these manufacturers and facilities have been “issued safety recall notices” by the National Consumer Commission. The companies must now come up with a recall plan which is “sufficient to cover their entire distribution chain, and the facilities will also have to resource and pay for the implementation,” News24 reported. Prof Korsten believes that food safety is a “national priority for all” and unless “all role players are included” and contribute to solutions, South Africa will “not be able to effectively address the problem.”

According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), “listeriosis is a serious bacterial disease” caused by “the bacterium, listeria monocytogenes.” The listeria bacterium is “widely distributed in nature” and found in primarily soil and water. This means that the food products that we ingest such as fruits, vegetables, and animal products can become contaminated with the listeria bacterium. For those with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV or diabetes, “listeriosis can lead to meningitis or septicaemia,” says the NICD. For pregnant women listeriosis can result in miscarriage. Although these groups are most seriously affected by listeriosis, South Africa’s Department of Health say that neonates and those between the ages 15 and 49 years are most frequently affected. In fact, the former makes up 37% and the latter 33% of reported listeriosis cases in South Africa to date.

TimesLIVE says that “listeriosis symptoms develop any time between two and 30 days after eating food contaminated with the listeria pathogen.” These symptoms are similar to those of flu and include “fever, muscle aches, and sometimes nausea or diarrhea”, according to WebMD. If the disease spreads to the nervous system, symptoms such as “headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance”, and convulsions may develop.

Prof Korsten says that the listeriosis “outbreak has a direct effect on the health and well-being of every citizen in this country.” This is because it affects South Africa’s “national health system” and negatively impacts “public trust in the food sector.” Prof Korsten continues by saying that food “safety assurance is a minimum requirement for any country and all people in South Africa expect [their] food to be safe.” Although government food-regulation systems are in place, Prof Korsten says there is a “growing informal unregulated sector that often operates below the radar and sells food products outside a traceable system.” These foods “do not comply with national [labelling] requirements and may therefore contribute to our perceived unsafe food burden.” South Africa is “unable to provide an effective food control system” because there is a “lack of effective governance and control and a highly fragment[ed] food system”, says Prof Korsten. She expands by saying that the “scientific community” is “not actively engaging with industry and government and vice versa” and that South Africa has “inadequate resources, a lack of well-trained auditors/ inspectors, laboratory technicians, researchers and regulators”, all of which contribute to the ineffective food control system in the country. Prof Korsten speculates that “perhaps the most profound long term impact” of the listeriosis outbreak could be on South Africa’s “fresh produce export industry.” Prof Korsten says that South Africa’s export industry has “established a quality, safe, reliant supplier image on the highly competitive international markets.” She says that South Africa should therefore “show due diligence and establish preventative programmes” so that the country will never “have to experience such a devastating outbreak again.”

According to TimesLive, Motsoaledi says that to reduce their risk of getting listeriosis, one can avoid all “ready-to-eat products such as viennas, polony and frankfurters.”

South Africa’s Department of Health has described other measures which one can take to reduce their risk of being infected with listeriosis. The first is to “keep clean” by washing your hands and equipment before and after meal prep. This is because “dangerous microorganisms” can be carried on “hands, wiping cloths” and “especially cutting boards.” When preparing and storing raw and cooked food it must be kept separately and different utensils must be used. Thirdly, food must be cooked thoroughly and have reached a temperature of 70˚C to “ensure it is safe for consumption.” Storing food at safe temperatures, which is below 5 ˚C or above 60 ˚C, ensures that “the growth of microorganisms is slowed or stopped”, however some “dangerous microorganisms can still grow below 5 ˚C.” Finally, the document says to “use safe water” to rinse raw foods such as “fruits and vegetables, especially if eaten raw.”

Illustration: Marizanne Linde

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