The World Health Organization (WHO) has congratulated South Africa after the largest Listeria outbreak in recorded history was declared over.

South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the outbreak had ended at a media briefing on Monday. The last known outbreak case of listeriosis was identified in the first week of June 2018.

WHO said it was important that work continued to strengthen the country’s food safety system. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said the outbreak threatened the food safety of many countries in southern Africa.

“Together with WHO and partners, the country mounted an effective response and we look forward to continuing to work together to strengthen food safety,” he said.

According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) there were 1,060 cases with 216 deaths between Jan. 1, 2017, and July 17, 2018.

The outbreak was linked to a ready-to-eat (RTE) processed meat plant owned by Tiger Brands, the Enterprise Foods production facility in Polokwane. Enterprise Foods exported products to 15 countries in the African region, but those countries did not report any Listeria cases linked to the outbreak.

WHO and partners from the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) helped South African health authorities identify the cause of the outbreak of the Listeria monocytogenes strain ST6 and to determine the source as RTE meat products.

WHO, GOARN and INFOSAN also worked with countries in the African region to improve ability to prepare for, detect and respond to potential outbreaks. Officials in most of those countries were not aware of listeriosis. Some report zero cases because it is not a notifiable disease condition and testing is not required to identify it.

WHO monitored travel and trade measures and shared export details with neighboring countries so they could take appropriate measures and minimize trade and economic losses for South Africa. Earlier this year, twelve of the 15 countries that received implicated processed meat products banned imports from South Africa and three countries also banned imports of dairy and fruit and vegetables.

Brian Chirombo, acting WHO representative to South Africa, said the agency supported South Africa’s efforts since the outbreak was declared in early December last year.

“While, the outbreak is over, it is possible that a few more cases of the ST6 strain of Listeria will be detected in the coming months as the implicated ready-to-eat products may still be in the homes of some people who are unaware of the recalls,” Chirombo said.

Listeriosis symptoms include fever, muscle pain, septicemia and meningitis. The incubation period is usually one to two weeks but can vary between a few days up to 70 days.

The Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) welcomed news the outbreak was over and it was safe to consume RTE processed meat.

“Whilst welcoming this, we hope that government will put into place a food safety regulatory body; staffed with people with relevant expertise from the state, civil society formations and academia; and hope that the industry, by a way of South African Meat Processors Association and related business bodies will come to the party,” said a statement from the group.

FAWU said it hoped that the thousands of jobs lost during the crisis will be recovered.

“We should be mindful of the fact that the listeriosis outbreak should have never happened in the first place. Our government should now ensure that this never happens again by putting appropriate measures in place.”

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