Johannesburg - Retailers across the country are running against the clock to remove ready-to-eat food products feared to be fertile carriers of the deadly listeria.
This as panic over the killer disease grips the country following the revelation that products from an Enterprise Foods production facility in Polokwane, Limpopo, are the source of the listeriosis outbreak, which has resulted in 180 deaths.
Even the Department of Basic Education has stepped in to issue urgent alerts to schools and parents over the purchase of foods such as russians, polony, sausages, viennas and other cold meats largely consumed by pupils as part of their packed lunches.
Health experts have also warned against the consumption of bunny chows and the popular township kota snacks.
“We will collaborate with the Department of Health to ensure that we spread the message highlighting issues regarding listeriosis and what parents can do to safeguard their children against it,” spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said on Sunday.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi said the number of laboratory-confirmed cases attributed to the foodborne disease now stood at 948 cases, with a fatality rate of 27%.
According to Motsoaledi, the cases were confirmed following the government’s efforts to trace the source of the disease outbreak, which is the biggest in the country’s history.
He said a team from the NICD recently interviewed 109 people as a means of establishing what they ate just a month before falling ill.
“Eighty-five percent of the people reported consuming ready-to-eat processed meats, of which polony was the most common, followed by viennas, sausages and other cold meats,” Motsoaledi pointed out.
David North, group executive of strategy and corporate affairs at Pick n Pay stores, said that following Motsoaledi’s announcement, the group had undertaken to immediately withdraw all products from the manufacturing sites identified.
“Customers who bought any Enterprise product (incl Bokkie, Renown, Lifestyle, Mieliekip), or any Rainbow ready-to-eat products eg. Polony or Russians can return the product for a full refund,” said Pick n Pay in a tweet on Sunday.
A statement from the Shoprite Group said: “Customers are invited to return any Enterprise Foods and Rainbow Chicken processed meat - cold meats like polonies, Viennas, Russians etc, products they have at home - for a full refund.”
Woolworths, in a statement, said it had a team of food scientists and technologists who proactively manage food safety to prevent microbial contamination of food.
"As an additional precautionary measure, we are recalling a limited number of viennas and cold meats."
Customers were urged to return several ready-to-eat meat products to their local store for a full refund.
Food Lover's Market said in a tweet that it will be removing products that may be linked to the listeriosis outbreak from their stores.
"Customers who bought any Enterprise ready to eat products (Bokkie, Renown, Lifestyle & Mieliekip) and Rainbow ready-to-eat products can return the product for a full refund."
The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa said 12000 of its members had opened the doors to their facilities for health practitioners to carry out tests where necessary.
“Our concern is always the health of consumers, and our members will not compromise on this non-negotiable requirement,” it said.
Listeria is a form of bacteria found in the environment and commonly occurs in soil, water, vegetation and in the faeces of some animals. It can contaminate a variety of food types, including meat and dairy products.
While Listeria cannot be spread from one person to another, pregnant women and infants, as well as people with weakened immune systems, are at a higher risk of contracting it.
Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea and diarrhoea.
Motsoaledi highlighted that in January, nine children under the age of five were rushed to Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital due to febrile gastroenteritis, an intestinal infection.
On the same day, he said, environmental practitioners visited the crèche where these children were and took samples of two polony brands which were later traced back to Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken Limited.
Motsoaledi said samples had also been taken from an Enterprise facility in Germiston, adding that more investigations would be conducted, including research of samples linked to a Rainbow Chicken facility in Wolwehoek near Sasolburg in the Free State.
In a bid to curb further spread of the disease, the Department of Health said the National Consumer Commission had issued implicated manufacturers with safety recall notices.
Motsoaledi urged the public to avoid all processed meat products that are sold as ready-to-eat, even from other brands.
“While we know that polony is definitely implicated, there is a risk of cross-contamination of other ready-to-eat processed meat products.
“This is because listeria on the exterior casing (packaging) can be transferred to other products it comes into contact with,” he said.
By 4pm on Sunday, supermarkets such as Shoprite in Sophiatown had already pulled products off their shelves. At a Spar in Newtown and a Pick n Pay in Witpoortjie, products belonging to the two brands implicated were still on the shelves.
Spar employee Vish Naidu said he was awaiting instructions from their head office on what action to take.
A consumer, Thabelo Nemulodi, said she had bought russians and polony for her children’s lunch box on Friday.
“What can I do? I’ll have to throw them away. We’re scared. We don’t know what to eat anymore,” she said.
Siyabulela Komane, who was just about to purchase some polony, said he wasn’t aware of the recall.
“I’ll call them at home right now and tell them to throw the polony away,” he said.
In a statement Tiger Brands chief executive Lawrence McDowell said: “Food safety remains the highest priority at Tiger Brands, where we always place consumers’ health and safety above all else. Therefore, we can confirm that we have, with immediate effect, undertaken a full national recall of the affected Enterprise ready-to-eat meat products.”
Asked what action would be taken against the companies implicated or if fines would be imposed, Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja said this was the National Consumer Commission’s prerogative.