Johannesburg - As anger erupted over the dismal handling of the listeriosis outbreak, it emerged that a shocking 78 of the 180 deaths from the killer disease were infants.
Dr Juno Thomas of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) on Monday revealed that the high number of fatalities included newborns who were only 28 days old or even younger.
“We are concerned that the information regarding the outbreak and the measures to be taken will not reach people, particularly in the peri-urban and rural areas.
“Therefore, yes, we are expecting more cases,” she said.
Tiger Brands further raised the ire of the public when it distanced itself from the deaths linked to the foodborne disease.
The food brand company said it had complied with the Department of Health and the NICD over investigations relating to the source of the outbreak, which has since been linked to a production facility of one of its brands, Enterprise Foods, in Polokwane, Limpopo.
Early last month, chief executive Lawrence MacDougall said Department of Health and NICD officials had visited their facilities and obtained more than 400 samples from various products for testing.
A week later, he said low levels of listeria had been detected in their products, but that the company took immediate precautions, including the heightened testing of food samples to prevent any contamination.
Despite the Capricorn Municipality expressing its satisfaction over the measures they had taken, they were surprised to hear pronouncements by Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on Sunday on recalling food products, he said.
“Prior to Minister Motsoaledi’s media briefing, we received a notice to recall three of our products. As a consumer-conscious organisation we are being extra vigilant, and therefore, immediate action was taken,” MacDougall said.
The company has also suspended all operations at its Polokwane and Germiston facilities as well as supplies to retailers.
Pressed by the media over whether Tiger Brands would take responsibility for the outbreak and ultimately the deaths, MacDougall said while the loss of any life was devastating for the company, he could not say if the fatalities were linked to their products.
As Tiger Brands’ shares plummeted on the stock market on Monday, it is unclear what sanctions might be imposed against it and RCL Foods (Rainbow Chicken).
Black First Land First, which laid murder charges against the two companies at Hillbrow police station, said heads had to roll.
The EFF said Enterprise Foods and RCL should take the blame for the outbreak. “They must be held accountable for spreading the disease and killing people,” its spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said.
The PAC said listeriosis was a result of the failure by the state to regulate food processing in the country. There were also concerns that contaminated food could find its way to dump sites, which were frequented by the destitute.
Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja told The Star that major food stores had assured the government that this won’t happen.
Also read: '#Listeriosis a crime against humanity'
Angry consumers descended on the Enterprise Foods factory in Germiston to return some of the products that it manufactures. They arrived in their droves to return food they had purchased, including french polonies, viennas, bacons and russians.
They arrived with food they had bought in bulk and were refunded, without having to produce receipts.
The popular factory shop sells hampers directly to the public.
The health minister named Enterprise’s production facility in Polokwane as the main source of listeriosis. He also fingered the RCL production facility in Sasolburg.
Retailers have recalled products from these producers.
Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique have followed suit and recalled processed meat products from South Africa.
Tony Nwanze, a father of five, bought a R360 hamper at Enterprise’s factory in Germiston on Saturday morning. “I’m worried about my kids because they ate some of it on Saturday,” he said.
“The issue is not about getting a refund. It’s about our safety, my kids’ health. This is frightening.”
Nwanze said Enterprise must reveal its plan to help people who might become infected by the bacteria.
“You don’t know you are buying death in a package. What happens to people’s health? How will they attend to people? The department must be more helpful.”
Said Matsie Tshabalala after getting her refund: “My question is what’s going to happen going forward? What if this (listeriosis) affects us?
“We don’t know when the symptoms start. Is it immediately after eating the contaminated food?”
Zolani Manda ate russians with his family just on Monday morning. He then heard from his friend that they had been recalled.
“We didn’t even know. We had just eaten, when he said ‘hey, people are dying because of that food’.
“These people (Enterprise) must take us to the doctor. I have flu now. Maybe it’s this illness,” said Manda.
Gauteng is the worst affected province in the 180 known deaths.
Breaking down the figures, Thomas said the fatalities included seven children aged 12 months to 14 years; 23 people between the ages of 60 and 64; 26 people over 65; and 44 people between 15 and 49, who largely comprised pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system.
“Several people have died in Gauteng and are part of the 180 death toll. However, the deaths were not recorded accurately, and we are still investigating,” she said.
To allay fears, Thomas said not every child or adult who presents with an intestinal infection or listeria-like symptoms, such as diarrhoea, vomiting and muscle aches, has listeriosis. But those who are concerned should seek help.