WENDY KNOWLER’S INDEPTH LOOK AT THE L WORD:
THERE’S no way I can fill this week’s column with anything else but the L word.
Because in my 20 years of consumer journalism I don’t recall a bigger story than this listeriosis outbreak.
And because I’ve been living in Listerialand since last Sunday’s astonishing revelation that the faeces of the children who got terrible diarrhoea after eating polony at their creche in January led the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) to the Enterprise polony plant in Polokwane.
It’s thanks to some very first-world, very expensive technology, called whole genome sequencing – which does for finding the source of food-borne disease outbreaks what DNA testing has done for nailing criminals – that a solid link could be made.
And that’s what the lawyers are going to be relying on when they take on Tiger Brands.
More than 90% of the 967 cases confirmed so far in this horrific outbreak were found to have the ST6 strain of Listeria, a strain unique to South Africa.
Those Soweto kids had been eating, among other things, Enterprise polony.
Swabs – lots of them – subsequently taken at the Enterprise polony plant in Polokwane were tested in a lab and found to contain ST6.
Since early January, food safety expert Dr Lucia Anelich had been telling journalists that the source of the outbreak – given that its victims were scattered across the country, both rich and poor, state and private patients – had to be a major food factory with a national footprint.
And because listeriosis is linked to ready-to-eat food – food that’s not heated or cooked by consumers before consumption, thus killing the Listeria – she guessed it was a range of cold meat, including polony, viennas and ham.
“It’s definitely something which a lot of people eat a lot of the time,” she told me back in January.
But everyone carried on eating their polony sandwiches and kotas, their viennas and their ham, just the same.
When I asked the major supermarkets a month ago whether they’d noted a drop in cold meat sales, they all said no, not at all.
Now polony – all polony – is being regarded as sure death by the masses.
“We must get rid of all this poison,” says the Economic Freedom Front, taking it upon themselves to remove any remaining brands from supermarket fridges this week, brands which aren’t part of the recall.
Over-reaction was inevitable, and understandable – listeriosis is an awful disease and in this outbreak the numbers so far point to a death rate of more than one in four.
And 183 lives lost due to eating contaminated food is a national disaster.
But given how widely cold meat has been consumed, and on a daily basis by many, some are asking why there had not been even more cases. According to the NICD, most people who eat Listeria-contaminated food won’t get sick – they get no symptoms, or ones so mild – a slight “runny tummy” for example – that they take no notice.
It’s the high risk groups – the very young and the old, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems – who are most susceptible.
Their flu-like symptoms become febrile gastroenteritis or meningitis when the bacteria enter their nervous systems.
Also, food products are usually contaminated in the factory after cooking and processing, so it’s not every pack of polony, for example, which is affected.
Food safety auditors at a listeriosis workshop I attended in Johannesburg last week said that, as polony’s raw ingredients were cooked in its manufacture, killing any Listeria, the contamination must have happened “post production”, possibly via tiny holes in the plastic wrapping, when in the cooling water vats or on a conveyer belt.
Here’s what else I learnt there:
ý In other listeriosis outbreaks, 25 to 30% of cases were confirmed after massive publicity about the source, such as we’ve seen in South Africa this past week. It is believed that percentage will be much higher in this case. Also, it can take up to two months, and in rare cases up to 70 days, for someone to get listeriosis symptoms after consuming a contaminated product.
ý Listeria can survive in factories for years, in badly constructed drains, cracked floor tiles, messy welds on machinery, and in impossible-to-clean piping. A cleaner aiming a high pressure hose at a contaminated drain creates an Listeria-infused aerosol, which can take hours to come down, contaminating the entire factory in that time.
ý Budget restraints have seen many food companies cutting back on the number of swab samples they send for testing for food-borne pathogens such as Listeria. And some resort to “lab shopping” when they get a positive result, in the hope of getting a negative elsewhere.
ý Listeria can survive in vacuum-packed ready-to-eat products.
ý Listeriosis outbreaks in other countries were caused by products as wide ranging as ice-cream, jellied pork tongue, ham sandwiches and rock melon, but all were products eaten by consumers without cooking or heating them.
ý Listeria continues to grow in fridges set at higher than 4C. And twice as fast at 8C as it does at 5C. A survey found that 60% of domestic fridges in the US were warmer than 5C. ý A lot of young South African children who contract listeriosis and survive will experience long-term neurological complications. We’ll hear their stories and those of all the other victims and their surviving families as the inevitable class action lawsuit gets under way.
WHAT TO DO:
Know that listeria, while it survives in cold, wet conditions, is killed by heat. So as long as you cook your food at temperatures of at least 70% – hot enough to make it create steam – it will be safe to eat.
Don’t worry about bacon and other meat products which you cook before eating.
Avoid all ready-to-eat meats, as Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi recommended, at least in the short term.
Remove any of those products from your fridge, along with any food you won’t cook, such as cheese, which may have touched it in the fridge, and then wipe down all your fridge’s surfaces with a solution of bleach (5ml in one litre of water).
Listeria is not airborne – contaminated food has to touch other food in order to “pass it on”.
Make sure your fridge is no warmer than 4C.
Keep raw and cooked food totally separate, with raw foods on shelves below cooked foods, to avoid raw juices from the former contaminating the latter.
NO WAY TO GO: Tongue in cheek, Wendy sent this signboard. Right, the Enterprise outlet after the recall