As of March 2, the total number of laboratory-confirmed listeriosis cases had risen to 948 since January 2017. Of the 948, a total of 659 patients had been traced and 180 of them had died - a 27 percent fatality rate.

Johannesburg - Processed food manufacturers Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken Limited (RCL) have been issued with safety recall notices following the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said on Sunday.

The Enterprise food production facility in Polokwane in Limpopo had been identified as the source of the current listeriosis outbreak, he told journalists at a media briefing in Johannesburg.

As of March 2, the total number of laboratory-confirmed listeriosis cases had risen to 948 since January 2017. Of the 948, a total of 659 patients had been traced and 180 of them had died - a 27 percent fatality rate.

"In our constant search for the source of the outbreak and the treatment of people who are affected, a team from the NICD [National Institute for Communicable Diseases] has interviewed 109 ill people to obtain details about foods they had eaten in the month before falling ill. Ninety-three (85 percent) reported eating ready to eat (RTE) processed meat products, of which polony was the most common, followed by viennas/sausages, and then other ‘cold meats’," Motsoaledi said.

On Friday, January 12, nine children under the age of five presented to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital with febrile gastro-enteritis. The paediatrician suspected foodborne disease, including listeriosis, as a possible cause. 

The environmental health practitioners (EHPs) were informed and on the same day visited the crèche and obtained samples from two unrelated polony brands, manufactured by Enterprise and RCL respectively, and submitted these to the laboratory for testing.

"Listeria monocytogenes was isolated from stool collected from one of the ill children, and from both of the polony specimens collected from the crèche. These isolates were sent to the NICD Centre for Enteric Diseases and underwent whole genome sequencing and genomic analysis. The ST6 sequence type was confirmed on all three isolates on Saturday 27th January," he said.

Following the lead from the tests performed on the children from Soweto and the food they had ingested, the EHPs, together with the NICD and agriculture, forestry, and fisheries department (DAFF) representatives, accompanied by three technical advisors from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, visited a food-production site in Polokwane and conducted an extensive food product and environmental sampling.

"Listeria monocytogenes was isolated from over 30 percent of the environmental samples collected from this site, which happens to be the Enterprise factory in Polokwane. To conclude the investigation, whole genome sequencing analysis was performed from this Enterprise factory and the results became available midnight or last night (Saturday]. The outbreak strain, ST6, was confirmed in at least 16 environmental samples collected from this Enterprise facility.

"The conclusion from this is that the source of the presents outbreak can be confirmed to be the Enterprise food production facility in Polokwane. Additionally, preliminary results show that several ready to eat processed meat products from the Enterprise facility located in Germiston contain L. monocytogenes, but the sequence type is not known as yet," Motsoaledi said.

"Investigation of the RCL Wolwehoek production facility is also underway. Polony products have tested positive for L. monocytogenes, but the sequence types of the isolates are not ST6. However, such contamination of ready to eat processed meat products constitutes a health risk. Also, over 10 percent of environmental samples collected by EHPs at this facility have tested positive for L. monocytogenes. The sequence types of these isolates are not known as yet.

With the information available, the following course of action had been decided upon:

- The National Consumer Commission (NCC) had in terms of section 60(2) of the Consumer Protection Act on Sunday morning issued the manufacturers concerned with safety recall notices;

- Compliance notices would be issued to facilities in terms of the National Health Act;

- In terms of registration for exports by the DAFF, the respective processing or manufacturing establishments, namely RCL Foods with an export registration number ZA32 and Enterprise Foods with an export registration number ZA33, had been temporarily suspended till further notice; and

- Members of the public were advised to avoid all processed meat products sold as ready to eat. While it was known that polony was definitely implicated, there was a risk of cross-contamination of other ready to eat processed meat products, either at production, distribution, or retail. This was because listeria on the exterior casing (packaging) of polony could be transferred to other products it came into contact with, including viennas, russians, frankfurters, other sausages, and other "cold meat" products typically not cooked before eating.

"The recall of these products does not mean that members of the public must now relax and stop the five food safety rules which we have recited many times, ie washing your hands before handling food or when coming back from the bathroom; making sure that food is well cooked; isolating raw food from cooked food; making sure that food is at an appropriate temperature; and washing non-cooked food with clean running water; as well as using only pasteurised or boiled milk products," Motsoaledi said.

Retailer Pick n Pay has withdrawn all listeriosis-linked food from its shelves, the company said on Sunday.

"Following the minister of health’s announcement earlier this afternoon [Sunday] on the source of the listeria outbreak, Pick n Pay has acted immediately to withdraw all products from the manufacturing sites identified by the department of health," Pick n Pay group executive for strategy and corporate affairs David North said.

North said Enterprise and Rainbow supplied a very broad range of retailers across South Africa.  All Enterprise products, including the  Bokkie, Renown, Lifestyle, and Mieliekip brands had already been recalled by the company concerned and Pick n Pay was urgently withdrawing them from its shops.

"In addition, all ready to eat products, such as polony and russian sausages manufactured at the Rainbow facility in Sasolburg are also being withdrawn.  This action is taking place in all Pick n Pay and Boxer stores. In addition, as a precaution, Pick n Pay branded chicken polony, manufactured by Rainbow, is also being withdrawn," he said.

All fridges and food preparation areas in Pick n Pay shops would now be re-cleaned to prevent any cross-contamination. Recalled meat was being isolated and would be safely destroyed. 

"The safety of customers is always our top concern. Any customer who is concerned that they may have bought a ready to eat meat product linked to the outbreak can return it to our stores for a full refund,” North said.

 African News Agency/ANA