Tiger Brands has asked consumers to remove any Enterprise ready-to-eat meat products from their fridges and place in a plastic bag - away from other foods. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency/ANA
JOHANNESBURG - Pressure continued on embattled food giant Tiger Brands with its shares slumped on the pending and potentially massive class-action suit following the outbreak of the deadly listeriosis that has claimed more than 180 lives in South Africa.

The shares fell 4.87percent in early trade yesterday to R350, the lowest since June 2016, to near two-year lows yesterday on news that Richard Spoor planned to file the case in the next two weeks.

Spoor, the human rights lawyer well known for his litigation on behalf of thousands of mineworkers, is consulting with US food and safety firm Marler Clark on the class-action against Tiger Brands.

Spoor said yesterday that court papers had already been drafted.

“We hope to file the application during the course of this week or next week,” Spoor said, adding that Marler Clark was an expert in the field and would make an invaluable contribution to the case.

“They bring a wealth of expertise,” said Spoor.

Marler Clark has represented thousands of individuals for the last 25 years in the US in claims against food companies, securing more than $600million (R7.08billion) for victims of E. coli, Salmonella, and other food-borne illnesses.

Frank Kahumba, an analyst at Momentum Securities, said the team at the Centre for Enteric Diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases had been working around the clock since December to trace the source of the outbreak and conducted 109 interviews.

Kahumba said indications now pointed to Tiger Brands as the probable source of the listeriosis.

“If that is indeed so, then the company will be liable for both fines for improper hygiene as well as claims from bereaved families.

"The fact that Richard Spoor, well known for his litigation on behalf of workers in the mining industry, is consulting with renowned US food safety lawyer, Marler, does not bode well for Tiger Brands,” said Kahumba.

Juno Thomas, the head of the Centre for Enteric Diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said last week that the centre was confident that it had traced the outbreak of the deadly listeriosis to Tiger Brands’ Enterprise food factory in Polokwane, Limpopo.

The centre found that polony manufactured at the Enterprise factory in Polokwane was linked to the listeriosis outbreak. It also found evidence that contamination was contained in the casing of the polony and was concerned the listeriosis could be transferred from the casings to other products the polony came into contact with.

The centre advised the public to avoid polony and associated products like frankfurters, Russians, and Viennas, prompting retailers like Shoprite and Pick * Pay to withdraw the affected meat products.

Tiger Brands halted operations in Polokwane and Germiston, east of Johannesburg, to carry out cleaning protocols at those facilities.

Non-governmental organisation Forensic for Justice, which is spearheaded by forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan, also said it was preparing to open a docket of 180 counts of murder, and for 479 counts of attempted murder against Tiger Brands for the food-borne disease.

O’Sullivan said the extent of the epidemic meant there was a "catastrophic" breakdown in standards, which led to the deaths, and the docket would ensure Tiger Brands executives were held to account.

Tiger Brands shares declined 2.57percent on the JSE yesterday to close at R358.47.