Tiger Brands and Stellenbosch University have established South Africa’s first Centre for Food Safety.

The center is an applied food science research consortium started by Stellenbosch University and industry, with Tiger Brands as its founding member. The company gave 10 million South African Rand (US $720,000) to fund the initiative.

It will provide opinion and academic support to industry, conduct food safety research and participate with government to ensure food safety regulations are based on scientific evidence.

Tiger Brands encouraged support from other stakeholders, government, retail partners and industry so the center can strengthen capacity and meet objectives.

South African officials recently declared an end to the world’s largest ever detected Listeria outbreak. The country recorded 1,060 laboratory-confirmed cases of listeriosis, including 216 deaths over 18 months.

The outbreak was traced to ready-to-eat (RTE) meat products known as polony made at a processed meat plant owned by Tiger Brands – the Enterprise Foods production facility in Polokwane.

However, University of Pretoria research has found some cases of polony positive for Listeria monocytogenes are still being sold in informal settlements, meaning not all contaminated food was removed from the market.

Professor Lise Korsten, co-director of the Department of Science and Technology’s National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Food Security, said people in lower-income brackets are more compromised as they can’t easily access healthcare services.

She added that sliced polony is being sold at spaza shops with no labelling, so it is not clear where it comes from. A spaza shop is a small informal shop sometimes run from a private house.

The launch of the food safety center is the culmination of months of negotiations. It will be independently managed by Stellenbosch University and research findings shared across the sector. Tiger Brands and industry will support it through funding and sharing food safety insights.

Tiger Brands said it has consistently highlighted the need for a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach to strengthening the food system in South Africa and it would like to be at the forefront of such initiatives.

Lawrence Mac Dougall, CEO of Tiger Brands, said the center has a pivotal role in driving food safety forward across the industry.

“When food systems fail, their consequences are extremely costly – for public health, consumers, food producers and the economy in general. With the global increase in the prevalence of foodborne diseases, science-based food controls are essential for the protection of food products and consumers,” he said.

“Improving South Africa’s food management system through fostering better integration and collaboration across key role players, including food manufacturers, government and academia was crucial for us.”

Professor Wilhelm Holtzapel, president of the International Commission of Food Microbiology and Hygiene; Professor Mieke Uyttendaele, food safety and food quality from the University of Gent; Stephen Forsythe, professor of microbiology at Nottingham Trent University; and Pier Sandro Cocconcelli, chair professor of food microbiology at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (UCSC) in Italy will lend expertise.

Professor Pieter Gouws, acting director for the new Centre for Food Safety, said it will play a role in consumer education on food-related issues.

“We aim to provide stakeholders with the opportunity to develop and exchange knowledge, experience, and expertise in food safety, food defense and food processing. We have a mandate to work across all faculties and disciplines within Stellenbosch and other entities, institutes, national and international higher education institutions, and public and private enterprises in South Africa and abroad.”

Gouws said with the worldwide increase in food-related diseases, developing countries bear the greatest burden.

“Africa has the highest incidence of food-related diseases and associated deaths amongst all age groups. Food-related diseases also have a significant impact on consumer health and the viability of the food industry and associated businesses. With this in mind, the need for a center dedicated to food safety is more important than ever before.”

Last month, Tiger Brands reopened its Enterprise Foods factory in Germiston, Gauteng.

Ready-to-cook products, such as bacon and frozen sausages as well as salami were to be made again but production of all RTE chilled processed meat remained suspended.

The company will resume production of RTE chilled processed meats once refurbishments at its Polokwane facility have been concluded and assessments completed by the Department of Health, which could happen this month. However, the Enterprise Foods meat canning operation, which is a separate unit on the Polokwane site, re-commenced activity in mid-September.

Mac Dougall said the listeriosis outbreak amplified the need for better co-ordination across all stakeholder groups for improved food safety systems in South Africa.

“We have learned this painfully in our country through the many who have fallen victim to the outbreak. We must work collectively and with a strong multi-sectorial approach – which includes the private sector, government, academia and civil society – to ensure that something like this never happens again in our country.”

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