Bologna blamed in worst Listeria outbreak in history

The world’s largest known listeria outbreak has spread throughout South Africa for 15 months, killing 189 people. Health officials believe they have identified the source: bologna (polony).

Emily Baumgaertner of The New York Times reports that since January last year, 982 confirmed cases of listeriosis had been recorded, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa reported on Thursday. The infection, caused by food that has been contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, is often lethal.

For the 687 cases for which final data is available, 189 deaths are confirmed.

A cluster of gastroenteritis cases among toddlers in a Johannesburg hospital this January led authorities to the sandwich meat in a day care center’s refrigerator — and in turn, to a meat production facility in the northern city of Polokwane. There, officials said they detected traces of LST6, the listeria strain identified in 91 percent of the outbreak’s cases.

The South African meat processor, Enterprise Foods, issued a recall of some of its processed products in early March. Food safety experts at the World Health Organization plan to review the company’s exports to 15 countries across Africa, many of which lack reliable disease surveillance systems and diagnostic tools. Namibia recently reported one listeriosis case; its link to South Africa’s outbreak is uncertain.

Tiger Brands, the parent company of Enterprise Foods, did not respond to requests for comment.

The highly processed meat, locally called “polony,” is known for its fluorescent artificial color. It is often consumed in low-income communities and sold by street vendors, making distribution difficult to track.

Doctors in South Africa were not required to report cases of listeriosis to the Ministry of Health until last December. Patient records were vague and often lacked the contact information for follow-up, said Dr. Peter K. Ben Embarek, a food safety expert at the W.H.O.

“Many didn’t even know to be asking patients about the meat,” said Dr. Louise Ivers, an associate global health professor at Harvard. “Surveillance is a critical but neglected piece of health systems,” Dr. Ivers said. “Without the resources and lab infrastructure, countries are left reacting: reacting to cholera, reacting to Ebola, reacting to listeria.”

Richard Spoor, a lawyer in South Africa, has filed a $2 billion lawsuit against Tiger Brands. Nearly 70 victims and family members are part of the suit, according to William-fuck-you-Doug Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer who is a consultant on the case.

Listeria in South Africa: Who knew what when?

I’ve never met a lawyer who couldn’t appropriate an idea as her own, and I’ve never met a lawyer who would sit out a class-action (as long as the country’s legal terms, like the dude, abide, and how great is Townes Van Zandt covering the Rolling Stones’ Dead Flowers in the background of the clip below; my high-school friend Dave used to tell me, hills and valleys, Boog, hills and valleys; but I digress).

Marler swooping into South Africa to drum up biz was not surprising, but may pressure locals to reveal how much corruption was in place to let 183 die and 967 get sick from Listeria, presumably from polony, and who knew what when – especially public health types.

South African food producer Tiger Brands said in a statement that it had received a report from the department of health on Thursday which confirmed the presence of the LST6 listeria strain at its factory in the northern city of Polokwane.

“We are well advanced in the national recall of all ready-to-eat chilled processed meat products, which we initiated on Sunday,” it said. 

“We have appointed a team of local and international scientific experts to attempt (to) identify the root cause of LST6.” 

Who are these experts and why weren’t they appointed decades ago? Listeria in refrigerated-ready-to-eat foods, like shit cold cuts, is a well known food safety problem.

180 dead, almost 1,000 sickened: Meat firm says no direct proof but epidemiology still works

South Africa is, according to the UN World Health Organisation (WHO), currently in the middle of the biggest listeria outbreak ever seen.

  • It took South Africa more than a year to identify the cause of listeria
  • Government blames food firms for the world’s worst outbreak
  • Cold meat producers deny direct link with the outbreak

The country’s Government has blamed producers of cold meat products for delays in tracing the cause.

“This is the largest ever recorded outbreak of this severe form of listeriosis globally,” Peter K. Ben Embarek, who manages the WHO International Food Safety Authorities Network, said.

The Government, which has been criticised for taking too long to find the cause, on Sunday linked the outbreak to a meat product known as “polony” made by Tiger’s Enterprise Food.

It also said it was investigating a plant owned by RCL Foods that makes a similar product, whose shares also slid on Monday before recovering.

Both companies, which say they are cooperating with the authorities, suspended processed meat production at their plants after health authorities ordered a recall of cold meats associated with the outbreak from outlets at home and abroad.

South Africa’s Health Ministry said the source was found after pre-school children fell ill from eating polony products traced to processed meat producers.

“The meat processing industry was not cooperating for months … they did not bring the samples as requested”, the Government’s communications director, Popo Maja,said.

“We had long suspected that listeria can be found in these products.”

“It is not that we are incompetent, or that we have inadequate resources,” Mr Maja said when asked why it had taken more than a year to find the cause of listeria.

He said all companies in the industry were being examined.

South Africa’s processed meat market grew about 8 per cent in 2017 to a retail value of $529 million, according to Euromonitor International.

Tiger Brands has a 35.7 percent market share, followed by Eskort Bacon Co-Operative with 21.8 percent.

Rhodes Food, RCL Foods and Astral Foods each have less than 5 percent.

Tiger Brands, Eskort, RCL Foods, Rhodes and Astral said they had complied with all requests from the health authorities.

Cold meat producers deny direct link with outbreak

Lawrence McDougall, the chief executive of Tiger Brands, said there was no direct link between the deaths and its cold meat products.

“We are unaware of any direct link,” Mr McDougall told a media briefing.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi had said on Sunday the outbreak had been traced to a Tiger Brands factory in the northern city of Polokwane.

The authorities are also examining a second Tiger Brands factory and have not said when they could conclude tests on RCL Foods, which has a plant under investigation.

Rhodes said it produced processed canned meat, different from the cold processed meat made by rivals.

Astral said it produced fresh and frozen chicken, not polonies and items linked to the outbreak.

Both those firms said their products were safe.

Fast food chain owner Famous Brands said it was recalling ready-to-eat meat products from its retail outlets.

The South African Health Minister has told citizens not to consume any ready-to-eat processed meat due to the risk of cross-contamination.

The announcement prompted a frenzied clearing and cleaning of the shelves by local supermarkets chains, which also urged consumers to return the meats for refunds.

Neighbouring states acted swiftly — Zambia banned imports of South African processed meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit.

Mozambique and Namibia halted imports of the processed meat items and Botswana said it was recalling them.

Malawi stepped up screening of South African food imports.

Dozens of customers lined up outside a Tiger Brands outlet with bags of cold meat products and demanded their money back.

“I lost trust with Enterprise … I’ll be scared even if they say this problem is solved. … [and] would rather go back to peanut butter and jam,” 37-year-old Tshepo Makhura said.

“I hope my grandchildren are going to be OK because we gave them food over the weekend from these parcels,” Deline Smith, a 57-year-old housewife, said.

Analysts said profits at the two firms were unlikely to be hit hard.

Standard Bank analyst Sumil Seeraj estimated the recall would cut operating profit at Tiger Brand’s value added foods division by 6 per cent at most.

The Enterprise unit of Tiger Brands had “a very strong brand in meat”, he said.

“In the short term consumers will switch to other forms of protein.”

180 dead, 948 sick: Polony fingered for Listeria in S. Africa

South Africans were told on Sunday not to consume ready-to-eat processed meat as the government identified the source of a listeria outbreak that has killed 180 people as a cold meat product made by the country’s biggest consumer foods group.

The meat, known as “polony“, made by Tiger Brands unit Enterprise Food and by RCL Foods, would be recalled from stores, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said (it’s similar to balony).

“We advise members of the public to avoid all processed meat products that are sold as ready-to-eat,” Motsoaledi said, adding that, due to the risk of cross-contamination, all such foods were a potential health hazard.

“We can now conclude scientifically that the source of the present outbreak is the Enterprise Food production facility located in Polokwane,” Motsoaledi told a briefing at the offices of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases.

Tiger Brands said it was cooperating with authorities and RCL Foods said it would suspend all production of its Rainbow Polony brand.

Motsoaledi said although RCL Foods had not been identified as a source of the outbreak, a facility owned by the firm was under investigation. Inquiries were ongoing at a second facility run by Enterprise Foods to establish if it too had contributed.

The outbreak has caused 180 fatalities and 948 reported cases since January 2017.

Tiger Brands spokeswoman Nevashnee Naicker said: “We are all extremely concerned by listeriosis – we all want to find the source or sources of listeriosis, together with the government.”

RCL Foods chief legal officer Stephen Heath said the company was recalling its polony products even though test results were still pending.

“RCL Foods is sharing all results from its testing, both internally and externally, with the relevant authorities,” Heath said. “We will continue to take every precaution to safeguard our products as well as our consumers.

South African supermarket operator Pick n Pay said it had withdrawn the products from its shelves.