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Some 1,000 people in South Africa have fallen ill over the past year in the largest outbreak of listeriosis in history. Nearly 200 people have died as of the beginning of April. Now, health officials have announced the likely cause of the outbreak – a common South African lunch meat called polony, along with vienna and russian sausages.
Bhekisisa reports that health authorities made the connection while investigating a group of nine children who had fallen ill with gastroenteritis and been admitted to Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. The doctor on duty thought that listeriosis may have been the cause and tipped off investigators from South Africa’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases. They paid a visit to the daycare and took samples from lunch meat in the fridge. That meat led them to a sausage factory in the city of Polokwane.
Tests at the factory confirmed the presence of a listeria strain known as LST6 – the same genotype seen in more than 9 out of 10 cases associated with the outbreak. Factory operators Enterprise Foods announced a recall of some of their processed meat products on March 4th.
South Africa’s department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries suspended the export license for Enterprise foods, which ships meat to some 15 countries in Africa. Many of those countries lack the health and surveillance infrastructure to identify and respond to outbreaks, so it’s unclear how many people have been sickened. The New York Times reports that at least one person has fallen sick with listeriosis in Namibia, which is one of the countries which imports processed meats from Enterprise.
Reuters reports that some of those neighboring states have responded in kind to the outbreak. Zambia has suspended imports of processed meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables from South Africa. Mozambique, Namibia, Malawi and Botswana have also stopped importing processed meat for the time being, according to a report from the BBC.
Another company implicated in the outbreak is Rainbow Chicken, one of the largest poultry producers in South Africa, although the bacteria there don’t match up to the LST6 strain. That means that there may be more than one strain of listeriosis involved in the outbreak. In a statement to the press, Rainbow Chicken said that they had suspended production at a plant in the city of Wolwehoek and temporarily frozen production on their brand of polony.
Polony is a highly processed lunch meat akin to bologna. It’s a popular lunch and snack food in South Africa – according to Quartz Africa, polony and similar sausages are the key ingredients in the kota, a popular food in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and in the gatsby, the unofficial sandwich of Cape Flats.
Reuters reports that the value of Tiger Brands dipped as a result of the recall, dropping about 13 percent before recovering to a 7 percent loss in trading on the day that the recall was announced in early March. The company is the largest food firm in South Africa, which in turn is the largest industrialized economy in Africa. The processed meat sector in South Africa is worth more than $400 million dollars, with Tiger Brands controlling a full third of the market. The processed meat industry in South Africa saw its retail value grow about eight percent in 2017.
A $2 billion class action suit has been filed in South African court against Tiger Brands, the parent company of Enterprise Foods. As of early April, some 70 victims had signed on as part of the case, according to the New York Times.
Big South African grocery chains like Shoprite, Pick n Pay, Spar and Woolworths have pulled polony and other processed meats from their shelves, as reported by BBC. Several outlets with reports on the ground in South Africa have written that customers are lining up at locations that sell polony to demand refunds for their purchases.
South African health minister Aaron Motsoaledi has warned the public to cut all processed meats out of their diet for the time being. He told newspaper Times Live that pregnant women should avoid processed meat “like the plague.” A statement from the health ministry explained that the advisory to avoid all processed meat (rather than only products from Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken) comes from the risk of cross-contamination during production, distribution, or retail.
The Conversation reports that listeriosis can be difficult to identify and eliminate in the environment. It can survive in very cold conditions, such as refrigeration, and can proliferate after other bacteria have been killed off. It thrives in wet environments and creates a thin film of bacteria on surfaces that’s difficult to eliminate even with strong cleaning agents like bleach.
The World Health Organization has identified South Africa’s listeriosis outbreak as the largest ever on record. Most of the cases so far involve persons who are at high risk of severe illness or death – pregnant women, the very young, immunocompromised individuals and the elderly. 4 out of 10 persons affected by the current outbreak are infants infected during pregnancy or delivery. The time it takes to manifest after exposure ranges from one to three weeks on the low end to 70 days on the high end.
The South African health and agriculture departments report that, “Risk profiling of food processing premises is under way and preparations have been made for a program of inspections and laboratory testing of high risk processing facilities of food that may be at risk for Listeria contamination.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, the South African Minister of Health, declared the outbreak over. 1,060 people were affected. 216 people died.
Common symptoms of listeriosis are similar to the flu – infected persons often suffer from nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Severe cases present symptoms such as meningitis (inflammation of tissues around the spinal cord and brain), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain itself) and sepsis (infection of the blood). Pregnant women are at particularly high risk and commonly suffer from preterm births, stillbirths, and spontaneous abortion.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)