Weekend Post (South Africa) - - FRONT PAGE - CON­TACT WENDY: Email: con­sumer@knowler.co.za Twit­ter: @wendy­knowler WENDY KNOWLER

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.


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

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