Polony products from Enterprise foods and Rainbow chicken are the main causes of Listeriosis disease in South Africa.Enterprise product returned by customers to Germiston Enterprise factory.Photo Simphiwe Mbokazi/African News Agency/ANA

The same good old polony most of us grew up eating is now a threat to life. The threat is not only to those eating it, but to that ideal of intra-Africa trade.

Having just visited key countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), President Cyril Ramaphosa returned home to the listeria hysteria that had families nuking their fridges to exterminate any processed meat and its relatives.

Food expert Dr Lucia Anelich told SABC News the first way to beat listeriosis is "to not panic". SADC countries and beyond did exactly that. Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Swaziland, Namibia, Mozambique and Kenya had banned our ready-to-eat meat products, including those produced by Enterprise and some by Rainbow, by Tuesday already.

Lawrence MacDougall, CEO of the owner of Enterprise, Tiger Brands, denied any direct link between their products and the outbreak. Time will tell if that was a wise move, but chances are someone will rue the day they listened to lawyers and accountants too much.

Dr Anelich explained further that the bacterium that causes listeriosis "can hide" for a long time from regular cleaning and testing techniques.

What was astonishing was when she further said that ways to clean contaminated fridges included washing the surfaces with very hot water, then wiping them with diluted bleach.

That sounds like regular cleaning to me. Obviously not to the factories in which more than 30% of tested samples were listeria-positive.

Surely that is catastrophic? But the real question is why multinational corporations run by highly-remunerated professionals are even remotely implicated.

One tip to manage the risk of infection is to heat "deli meats and hot dogs until steaming hot before eating", according to "how stuff works" online.

This point was somehow reiterated by Dr Anelich.

If heating polony until it is steaming could kill listeriosis, why was that option not emphasised to our people?

Why did South Africa’s neighbours isolate polony from their largest peer member state? They do not have ways of trusting our quality any more. Trust takes honesty; more, it takes being open to inspection by peers.

The answer is that nobody would risk further deaths. What if the polony we disposed of is being eaten by a desperado somewhere on our streets, if not being sold on by unscrupulous hustlers? An informed end-user is our safest ally in arresting listeriosis.

On the other hand, the reason SADC countries could not address this in a manner that is effective but less disruptive of regional trade is the lack of common vision.

Without a common vision, countries cannot agree on priorities. Without common priorities, it is impossible to collaborate on how to enforce hygiene and food-processing standards across SADC.

So reports of compromised or contaminated polony in two or three factories make us shut down completely.

Dining in a reasonably renowned franchise restaurant on Tuesday night, my request for wet wipes before having dinner had the waiter sheepishly apologising that they had run out.

Smack bang in the middle of a listeriosis outbreak, a top restaurant has no first-level resource in disrupting infection by promoting clean hands.

If we cannot even agree how to entrench basic hygiene on a continent that should be the agriculture mainstay of the world, how can we build an alternate banking system or commercialise indigenous African knowledge?

May the listeriosis crisis teach us that the answer to life’s most complex problems is commonly the simplest!

One agent of listeria is human faeces. A survey of 100 000 people in Europe by Initial Washroom Hygiene found that 62% of men do not wash their hands after using the toilet.

If factories producing polony are microcosms of our society, it is possible that some of the food-handling staff do not wash their hands after a toilet stop.

A failure to wash one’s hands probably killed 180 people and billions in intra-SADC trade, calling for better alignment of standards across the region’s key economic sectors to foster uninterrupted trade and investment.

* Kgomoeswana is author of Africa is Open for Business, a media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs, and a columnist for Destiny Man  

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