On the 12th of December 2017 I wrote a blog titled Listeria: what you need to know. At the time of writing, 557 cases of Listeriosis had been reported in South Africa, and there had been 36 reported fatalities. Even then that was deemed to be an exceptionally high number of deaths, considering that the USA’s Centre for Disease Control reports that approximately 1,600 cases of listeriosis are reported in the United States every year, with 260 resulting in death..
On the 4th of March the Health Minister announced that polony and other ready to eat (RTE) products from an Enterprise Foods factory in Polokwane were the source of the world’s deadliest outbreak of listeria. By the end of March the official death toll stood at 189, and by the end of June this had risen to 212 dead and 1053 confirmed cases of the disease, but with the number of new cases being reported each week decreasing since the product recall on the 04 March 2018. The Mail & Guardian described the food poisoning disaster as “the worst in modern South African history … (which) has raised questions about regulatory oversight and standards.”
In their own National Public Health Emergency Response Plan the Department of Health said that “while the source of the listeriosis outbreak has been identified and case numbers are declining, the outbreak has highlighted potential weaknesses in both legislative and policy framework regarding food safety, and regulatory/enforcement systems to ensure consistent and sound implementation of food safety norms and standards.”
As one might expect, the meat processing sector was particularly hard hit by this disaster. According to the South African Meat Processors Association (SAMPA), the meat industry has shed about 2000 jobs, whilst also losing in the region of R800 million a month, as safety concerns following the listeria outbreak sent both the prices and the demand for ready-to-eat meats into freefall. The association said sales of polony and viennas had fallen 70% while those of other processed meat products had declined 50%.
So other than an increased awareness by the general public of the risk of Listeria in various foodstuffs, a corresponding decline in appetite for RTE products, and an acknowledgement that our food safety legislation needs an overhaul, has South Africa’s Listeria disaster prompted any real change in terms of how we legislate food hygiene, or how rules and regulations are implemented?
The National Public Health Emergency Response Plan outlines the measures that Government is taking, and states that Government has “activated a full-time Emergency Operations Centre and together with the World Health Organisation (WHO) have created a multi sectoral incident management Team (IMT) that will work full-time to address the challenges raised by the listeriosis outbreak in a focussed and intentional manner.”
One of the main objectives of the plan is to “expedite legislation reform by reviewing and enhancing existing food legislation”. And it would appear that in terms of this objective, they seem to be making headway. A situation report published by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases at the end of July cites three critical pieces of amended legislation that have been published to date:
- Regulations governing “General Hygiene Requirements for Food Premises, the Transport of Food and Related Matters” - 22nd June 2018
- An amendment to the Regulations pertaining to the application of the Hazard analysis and Critical Control System (HACCP) - 14th June 2018
- A draft of the revised “Regulations governing microbiological standards for foodstuffs and related matters”
These reviews have resulted in a tightening of industry regulations, with processors of heat-treated, ready-to-eat meat products now required to implement a hazard-analysis and critical control point (HACCP) system within nine months. The HACCP approach involves the systematic assessment of all the main steps involved in a food manufacturing operation and the identification of those steps that are critical to the safety of the product. In addition to this, national training of Environmental Health Practitioners regarding the HACCP regulations will be rolled out across the provinces, and a dedicated listeriosis website (http://listeriosis.org.za/listeriosis) went live on the 31st May.
In a briefing to parliament in June President Ramaphosa said the government had put in place a process to establish a food safety agency and a relevant regulatory framework to ensure the requisite high levels of health and safety. “The government has intervened to secure public safety and the longer-term sustainability of the sector, which must rest on an optimal health and safety regulatory framework and appropriate enforcement by the government,” he added.
In addition to legislative changes, Government has also stepped up their inspection and testing regime, with 146 of the 158 producers of ready to eat processed meat having been inspected by the end of July. Environmental swabs were collected at 132 facilities and are being tested, with results being reported directly to district environmental health services.
All of these initiatives show a strong commitment to ensuring that another disaster of this magnitude doesn’t occur in our food processing sector. In their National Public Health Emergency Response Plan the Department of Health concludes that “the response plan is an investment in the immediate and longer term health and well-being of all South Africans”.
However, as I mentioned in my blog post relating to the Listeria workshop I attended in April, Listeria monocytogenes’ can be extremely persistent, evading even the most comprehensive of HACCP systems. The bacteria can become established in niches within food production facilities despite correct and frequent cleaning and disinfection, and it can remain on surfaces or equipment for several months to years. Because of this, Listeria is a universal problem for food manufacturers, and even when all reasonable hygiene measures have been put in place, problems can still arise.
And this was demonstrated in July when the Hungarian Food Safety Agency issued a worldwide product recall due to an outbreak of listeria in Europe. On the 4th July, Greenyard Factory announced a recall of frozen vegetables due to potential listeria contamination of frozen goods at its Hungary facility in Baja. The products involved included frozen corn, peas, beans, spinach and sorrel. South African retailer Woolworths, who recalled a frozen savoury rice mix, said that their product contained sweet corn from Greenyard Factory.
Listeria monocytogenes’ hardiness means that any attempt to control it needs to comprise of a fully integrated food safety strategy that takes into consideration every single touch point - human and machine - in the food processing space, and even after the product leaves the factory. The government’s insistence on the implementation of HACCP systems for RTE meat-processors is an excellent first step in creating an integrated strategy for fighting the disease, but it also requires that food processors come to the party and embrace these new requirements in the spirit they are intended.
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