O’Sullivan said he expected the number of listeriosis-related deaths to increase to 500 because of some cases slipping though the cracks of the public health system.
He based this on an analogy of previous incidents that involved mass deaths. They would work with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases to finalise the exact number of deaths and illnesses, he said.
The 479 criminal dockets would include cases of attempted murder and culpable homicide.
“I don’t believe the number of deaths is 180. It’s a lot higher than that. It’s a lot like the deadly fire that swept through Grenfell Tower in London. The next day they said 18 people had died, but the final figure was nearly 100.
"The initial death toll at 9/11 in New York was thought to be 1000, but the final figure was just over 3000. People who are victims to less known crimes tend not to report it. And in this case my estimation is that the listeriosis deaths could easily jump to 500, because of unreported cases at public hospitals,” O’Sullivan pointed out.
The FFJ has set up a page on its website with a toll-free number, 0800 118118, where families of unreported victims of listeriosis can report cases or call the NGO.
Their efforts to open criminal cases will run together with the class action that human rights lawyer Richard Spoor is initiating against Tiger Brands.
Two weeks ago, Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi announced that the source of the listeriosis outbreak had been traced to two brands of polony produced by Tiger Brands' Enterprise Foods and RCL.
Motsoaledi confirmed 180 deaths, but Tiger Brands chief executive Lawrence MacDougall maintained there was no direct link between the deaths and his company’s processed cold-meat products.
But last week the company conceded it had received reports from the Health Department, confirming the presence of the LST6 listeria strain at its factory in Polokwane.
The company said it would appoint an expert team to identify the causes.
O’Sullivan said MacDougall's response was shocking and lacked empathy. He called for the company’s board to be dissolved and to resume on a clean slate.
It was unacceptable that on the one hand the company was deep-cleaning all its affected facilities, but on the other it was denying culpability, he added.
“The sheer scale of the epidemic can only mean that there has been a catastrophic breakdown in standards and procedures, which has resulted in so many deaths, with hundreds more being poisoned.
"Such a procedural breakdown has to be criminally investigated, and the FFJ intends to make sure that the relevant executives and directors of Tiger Brands are held responsible."
The company said it was doing all it could to remedy the situation. “We acknowledge and recognise that we are dealing with a national crisis which has impacted our customers, consumers and the industry. Tiger Brands wants to be at the forefront of finding a solution,” MacDougall contended.