Some consumers were likely tossing recalled cold meat products into their municipal dustbins, unaware of the potential listeriosis hazard this could pose to the informal waste sector.

“I guarantee that's happening,” remarked Dr Johan Schoonraad, the technical specialist for the EnviroServ Group, yesterday.

“I’ve had direct feedback from people who’re throwing these products into their dustbins and I expect a lot of people are doing this.

“Either it’s the inconvenience (of returning the food to retailers) or they under-estimate where that material is being disposed of and are unaware that this in theory places the informal waste sector on municipal sites at risk.”

On Friday night, Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa also expressed concern that recalled processed meat “had caused some panic where residents ended up throwing their food products into their normal domestic waste bins.

“This took place before the announcements from outlets that food products could be brought in to the various outlets across the country,” she said.

“As we know, with the high levels of waste picking in the country, we could have waste pickers accessing the contaminated food if this food ends up in waste disposal facilities accessible to this group of vulnerable people.”

This week, her department gave special permission for licensed waste management facilities to accept listeria-contaminated food products for disposal.

Schoonraad said EnviroServ could offer disposal to Class A landfills around the country, including treatment to prevent further spread of the bacteria.

These landfills are specially designed and engineered for acceptance of hazardous waste and not accessible for waste picking.

“We realise the scale of the problem is too big for the incineration industry to deal with in any sort of reasonable time-frame and we can do treatment and disposal at landfill,” he said.

“We've approached the food industry with a solution, but the final decision is still pending.

“They are keen to go for thermal destruction and agree that it is better inherently than putting the material at landfill.

"But the incineration industry is structured around healthcare risk waste volumes and has built capacity accordingly. When we approach them now with a significant volume of contaminated foodstuffs, obviously they can’t put medical waste on hold.

“You could, if you have capacity, put the recovered material in cold storage and slowly work it away when there's spare capacity, but that would literally take months. The alternative is to take it to hazardous landfills.”

Molewa said measures enacted by her department would ensure there was enough capacity to dispose of the infected waste timeously, and remove the possibility of the infected waste being accessed through waste-picking activities.

“Contaminated waste may be accepted for treatment at a licensed incineration, non-burn or co-processing facility, or may be accepted for disposal at a Class A landfill.”

The department had moved to ensure that the measures to prevent any negative consequence of the disposal of these products were put in place urgently.

“Waste treatment and disposal facilities have been made aware of these measures, as well as provincial and municipal authorities. Provincial departments of environment, municipal environmental health practitioners and officials of the national department continue to create awareness among waste pickers.”

Suzan Oelofse, the research group leader of the waste for development, natural resources and environment operating unit at the CSIR, said contaminated foodstuffs were incinerated at 850 degrees, “and the listeria will be destructed".

Nico de Jager, the MMC for Environment and Infrastructure Services for the City of Johannesburg, said Pikitup could not deal with contaminated meat products at its landfills as they were not geared for hazardous waste.

The Saturday Star