Some stores removed risky products, but this isn't always the case in rural districts.Photo: Cindy Waxa/AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY (ANA)
JOHANNESBURG - Just as we are recovering from the shocking news of how the listeriosis bacterium has been traced to a processed food factory in Polokwane, Limpopo, we now hear there is a new possible outbreak.

This at a time when Tiger Brands, the company that owns the Limpopo facility, still refuses to admit guilt even though it accepts that it will face a crippling lawsuit from the families of the 180 people so far confirmed to have died because of listeriosis since January 2017.

Tiger Brands only accepts that there was listeria in its Polokwane factory. The company has said it received notice of two class-action suits against it amounting to about R425 million.

While we must interrogate Tiger Brands' responsiveness and debate the company's potential culpability (or lack thereof) in this case, it is critical that we look beyond the factory floor processes and ask ourselves and our various government departments critical questions. The answers could determine whether another outbreak can be prevented.

A good place to start is at the national Health Department.

As someone who has run a poultry farm and has extensive experience in both retail and agribusiness, I am painfully aware of the low standards of hygiene in factories and on the shop floor.

It is well known that there are many shops in our townships and rural areas that double up as bedrooms and many such businesses sell goods that are expired or very close to their expiry dates.

The regulatory framework that allows for the removal of such goods is often missing in action, allowing for the poorest to be at the mercy of unscrupulous businesses who potentially sell them disease and, as we now know, their possible death.

One would expect that the Health Department, in conjunction with the Ministry of Small Business Development, would be at the forefront of ensuring that such abominations against our people are limited or altogether eliminated.

However, as the listeriosis outbreak has shown, food-borne disease will always be with us if the relevant government departments do not police the legal requirement that if you claim to be producing chicken polony, then at least 80 percent of the substance produced should be chicken.

The same applies to beef, pork or other main ingredients in the processed food space.

The absence of vigilant policing of the processed food space and weak trade and industry regulations allow for countries that have lower health standards than ours, such as the US, to dump their chicken or chicken products here.

In many cases, that which is said to be chicken is in truth an output of what the industry refers to as mechanically deboned meat (MDM).

This process carries with it the real risk of any part of the chicken, not just the flesh, being made part of the food processes and then making its way into processed meats such as those we now know were the source of the listeriosis outbreak.

It is no greater wonder that there is very little chicken or pork as you and I know it in what passes as chicken or pork-processed food products.

What is to be done?

The Department of Trade and Industry needs to revisit the regulations that allow Brazil and the US to dump their chicken as freely as they currently do.

Poultry is a low-entry food market and the cheapest food to produce. Many countries around the world protect their own poultry farmers, but not so with South Africa.

The food industry also needs to play its part. It needs to get more involved in the monitoring of standards and in consumer education. It is wrong to call MDM extracts polony when they do not meet the basic standard.

Home Affairs, as the division that is responsible for border control, should also start working harder at ensuring that the foods which have the potential of causing health problems, or even death, are made safer.

The Department of Small Business Development should take advantage of the listeriosis outbreak to promote small enterprises involved in the creation of real meat products such as salami and some forms of ham.

The outbreak offers an opportunity to return to historically available food produce and to introduce some to wider markets.

Instead of waiting for chickens from Brazil and the US, we should be encouraging co-operatives to produce chickens at a grander scale and for cheaper.

It is also about time that one of the richest sources of protein, masonja (mopani worms), becomes a mainstream food group.

It is something of a modern-era proverb to say that one should not waste a good crisis.

The listeriosis outbreak, while unacceptable in any way one can imagine, would have been a wasted crisis if we learn nothing from it and do nothing to create a future that does not depend on outsiders for affordable foods and creation of sustainable local food industry.

Kholofelo Maponya is founder of DayBreak poultry farm, an entrepreneur and political-economy commentator.

 The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.