As the World Health Organization told countries around the world this week to make listeriosis a reportable disease because of the ongoing crisis in South Africa, outbreak victims and their families filed a class action suit against the producers of processed meats that have tested positive Listeria monocytogenes.

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Meanwhile, corporate officials for Tiger Brands and its wholly owned subsidiary Enterprise Foods expressed dismay at comments from federal officials in South Africa. The government officials proclaimed the source of the Listeria monocytogenes responsible for the outbreak remains unknown, according to some members of the South African Parliament. The companies have recalled products because of the outbreak.

The federal officials admitted that traces of listeria found at chicken “polony” plants operated by Enterprise and another much smaller processed meat producer were not the “primary sources” of the outbreak, according to a Wednesday statement from one of South Africa’s political parties, the Democratic Alliance.

“Although traces of the bacterium has been found at Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken facilities‚ the departments have today confirmed the (Democratic Alliance’s) suspicions that Rainbow and Enterprise factories are a source but not the primary sources of the outbreak‚” according to a prepared statement from Patricia Kopane, a member of Parliament from the Democratic Alliance party.

“It is now apparent that the government seems to be blaming bureaucratic processes and has opted for prematurely scapegoating Enterprise and Rainbow because it does not have proper emergency plans in place to contain this.”

However, Dr. Lucia Anelich, a food safety expert in South Africa, told the Johannesburg Times she was unsure what was meant by “primary source” of the outbreak.

“We know that the outbreak strain of Listeria ST6‚ was found in the Enterprise plant‚ but it’s true that we don’t know its origin‚” Anelich told reporter Wendy Knowler.

The outbreak strain that has been found in the Enterprise plant that produces the boloney-style “polony,” Vienna sausages and other processed meat is responsible for at least 91 percent of the 978 Listeria infections documented thus far, according to the World Health Organization. 

Of the 674 illnesses for which the outcome is known, more than a fourth of them — 183 — resulted in deaths, according to a Wednesday update from WHO. Additional illnesses are expected, partly because it can take up to 70 days after exposure for symptoms of listeriosis to develop.

If the report from the Democratic Alliance is accurate, it is incongruous with information from South Africa’s public health officials, who have left little doubt about what is causing the outbreak that began in January 2017.

Aaron Motsoaledi, the country’s health minister, and Juno Thomas of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) have both repeatedly warned the public to avoid ready-to-eat processed meats “until there is further clarity as to the extent of product contamination.

“The finding that the external casing of polony products sampled at the Enterprise Foods’ Polokwane production facility were found to be contaminated with the outbreak strain of L. monocytogenes‚ which means that there was a likelihood of cross-contamination of other RTE processed meat products when stacked together in cold storage and refrigerators at retail level‚ including products of different brands from different manufacturers‚” Thomas said this week, the Times reported.

The implicated processed meats are exported from South Africa to 15 countries in Africa, according to the WHO. All of those countries have issued recalls for the implicated products. Currently, 12 out of 15 banned imports of the same, while three out of these countries have additionally banned imports of other food products.

While the outbreak strain of Listeria has not been found in the Rainbow production plant, investigators found another serotype of the pathogen there. However, food safety experts in South Africa and the United States say that fact is not as significant as corporate officials and some politicians may suggest.

It’s a “not yet” situation, according to Bill Marler, founding partner of the Seattle law firm Marler Clark LLP. He said it is likely only a matter time, and probably not a lot of time before laboratory testing shows a match between sick people and the Listeria serotype found in the Rainbow plant.

Marler has been working with public officials, victim advocates, and industry officials in South Africa for several weeks. He said one of the things that complicated the identification and investigation of the outbreak is the fact that listeriosis was not a reportable disease in South Africa until December 2017, a which meant doctors and outbreak investigators were not asking victims what they had eaten recently.

“When they made it reportable, they started asking the sick people what they had eaten before they got ill and it went pretty quickly after that,” Marler said Wednesday.

The Seattle attorney is assisting one of South Africa’s leading human rights attorneys, Richard Spoor, with the class action lawsuit filed by 10 victims and their families. It names Tiger Brands Limited and Enterprise Foods and was filed Wednesday in the High Court of South Africa.

Highlights from the class action

  • Although Listeria occurs widely in nature, ready-to-eat processed meat products are particularly susceptible to contamination. Despite this, effective steps can be taken to prevent the bacterium spreading in meat production, packaging and distribution facilities; and to prevent the bacterium from contaminating ready-to-eat processed meat products produced, packaged and distributed in these facilities.
  • Tiger Brands is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Its 2017 Integrated Annual report and its 2017 Financial Statements for the year ended September 2017 shows Tiger Brands made over R31 billion in revenue in 2017, with a gross profit of more than R10 billion.
  • Tiger Brands prides itself on the vertically-integrated nature of its business. It controls the full value chain from procurement of raw materials, through the manufacturing process, to marketing and distribution of products to customers and consumers.
  • Enterprise is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tiger Brands and appears to be the only operating entity in Tiger Brands’ “Value-Added Meat Products” division.
  •  Enterprise manufactures a range of chilled processed meat and canned meat products, which are marketed both under its parent company’s brands such as Enterprise, Renown, Mielie-Kip, and Bokkie, as well as under the in-house brands of retailers such as Woolworths.
  • In 2003, Enterprise became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tiger Brands. Prior to that, Tiger Brands only owned a 50 percent share in the company, with the remaining 50 percent share being held by Foodcorp Ltd.
  • According to the Tiger Brands timeline, on Feb. 2 this year the NICD visited its Polokwane plant along with officials from the World Health Organization. The officials took more than 400 swabs and nine product samples for testing. Health inspectors were compelled to request police support in accessing the plant after Enterprise had twice refused to grant access to the factory.
  • The inspectors found Listeria in more than 30 percent of the environmental samples collected from this site. At least 16 environmental samples contained the Listeria ST6 outbreak strain. The Health Minister concluded on March 4 that “…the source of the present outbreak can be confirmed to be the Enterprise production facility in Polokwane.”
  • On March 5, in a press conference called in response to the Minister’s announcement, Tiger Brand’s CEO MacDougall denied any links to the listeriosis crisis. He reportedly endorsed the “stringent standards” adopted by Enterprise Foods. The CEO refused to apologize until there was proof of negligence, despite the presence of Listeria in the Polokwane factory.
  • On March 6, MacDougall was quoted as saying that: “There has been no direct correlation between our products and the deaths yet, so we are unaware of any direct links.”

Editor’s note: Bill Marler is the publisher of Food. Safety News

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