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Dominos are falling in world’s largest listeriosis outbreak

The World Health Organization reiterated Monday that South Africa’s ongoing foodborne illness outbreak is the largest listeriosis outbreak ever recorded globally.

Health officials in South Africa on Sunday named a ready-to-eat meat product known as “polony” produced by Tiger’s Enterprise Food as the likely cause of the outbreak’s nearly 1,000 cases and 180 deaths. The WHO officially declared the outbreak in December 2017. In January this year the international agency said it was the largest outbreak ever. The death toll was 67 at that point.

On Monday, the developments came quickly. One African country after another banned imports of South African meats, following the public warning from South Africa’s public health department that urged people to avoid processed meats. The warning notice says the contamination involves more than one production facility.

Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, and Botswana all announced the suspension of processed meat imports from South Africa after hearing a manufacturer there was the named as the source of the outbreak.

Mozambique’s ministry of agriculture and food security took the next predictable step in ordering the products immediately removed from that country’s commercial establishments. Others took the same action.

South Africa produced $412 billion in processed meats in 2017 with Tiger Brands being the most significant player with about one-third of the market.

Also on Monday, the South African government responded to criticism that health officials took too long to discover the source of the Listeria monocytogenes. A spokesman for South Africa’s Health Ministry said the meat processing industry went for months without cooperating with the investigation.

Both Tiger Brands and RCL Foods, who health officials Sunday said are targets of the investigation, along with Eskort, Rhodes and Astral, say they’ve fulfilled all requests from health officials.

Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence McDougall told local media there is no “direct link” between the deaths and its cold meat products. His statement seemingly contradicts Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s announcement Sunday implicating the Tiger Brands factory in Polokwane.

McDougall did say Tiger Brands, which owns Enterprise Foods, is executing the government’s recall order and being “extra cautious and vigilant.”

Publicly traded shares of both Tiger Brands and RCL Foods fell sharply but then recovered, during Monday market activity.

Motsoaledi has warned South Africans to “avoid all processed meat products sold as ready to eat” and says pregnant women should avoid any processed meat “like the plague.”

The warnings about processed meats also set off a “cleaning frenzy” across South Africa Monday.

From small grocery stores to the country’s largest supermarkets, ready-to-eat meat shelves were cleared and cleaned. People cleaned home refrigerators with diluted bleach after tossing out all their “polony” products.

Across South Africa, people lined up to return their processed meat products and get reimbursed for what they paid for the protein.

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