Job loss risk as consumers panic unnecessarily over West Point pilchard recall

Lucky Star is an unlucky victim, Shoprite also losing sales on unaffected batches

28 February 2020 - 13:56
Many pilchard brands are perfectly safe to purchase and consume.
Many pilchard brands are perfectly safe to purchase and consume.
Image: Christoph Heierli

SA’s biggest-selling tinned pilchards brand, Lucky Star, is not part of the pilchards recall but mass consumer confusion has hit the company so hard that the jobs of its cannery employees could be on the line.

“We want to reassure the public that our products are indeed safe to consume,” said Zodwa Velleman, the Oceana Group’s regulatory and corporate affairs executive.

“It is important for consumers to know that the recalled product is restricted to a cannery not related to Lucky Star.

“Should the status quo remain or worsen, this could have an impact on job security and food security,” she told TimesLIVE.

“Lucky Star’s canneries in St Helena Bay and Laaiplek on the Cape west coast employ more than 2,500 workers.”

Uninformed and sceptical consumers are spreading incorrect information on social media that directly or indirectly implies that Lucky Star pilchards are not safe for consumption, said Velleman.

“The recall messaging did not list the affected brands upfront but referred to pilchards in the broader sense, with the affected products only listed towards the end — at which point consumers had already drawn their own conclusions in terms of the brands involved.”

Then came the department of basic education’s announcement that all pilchards are suspended from the national school nutrition menu, creating further doubt about the safety of all pilchard brands.

The brand clearly has a major consumer perception battle on its hands. Nesta Mphahlele summed it up when she responded to a tweet by a radio station about its surprise breakfast of Lucky Star pilchards, with this tweet: “Looks palatable, mara we afraid to buy, eat or even crave anything with tinfish.”

ONLY THESE CANS OF PILCHARDS ARE AFFECTED BY THE RECALL

There are 12 tinned pilchard products in the recall — all either Pilchards in Tomato Sauce or Pilchards in Chilli Sauce — and all with one of two codes printed on the top of the cans.

All the affected products were produced by West Point Processors of St Helena Bay.

An investigation by the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications revealed that there was a problem with the canning process at one specific West Point Processors cannery in mid-2019.

During the sauce filling step, part of the processing machinery made a small incision — a cut or scratch — in two batches of cans, compromising the safety of the product, the NRCS told media on Tuesday.

The brands include four Shoprite group house brands, the Spar house brand, and West Point’s own labels. Crucially, only those with batch codes starting with ZST29 or ZSC29, printed on top of the tins, are part of the recall.

The brands are:

  • Deep Catch
  • Mammas
  • Prime Ocean
  • Spar
  • Sunny
  • Shoprite Ritebrand
  • Cape Point
  • Checkers Housebrand
  • U Brand
  • Saldanha
  • West Point
  • OK Housebrand

OTHER BATCHES AND BRANDS ARE SAFE TO CONSUME

The Shoprite Group has confirmed that many of its customers have returned tins which are not among the recall batch, as well as those of other brands, such as Lucky Star.

“Shoprite has thus guided their branches in identification of affected batches in an effort to assure customers of which products are unaffected, and we’ve been communicating with other suppliers of canned fish, especially Lucky Star, in an effort to assist queries from customers in terms of any quality shortcoming,” the retailer said.

So far, Shoprite has received six reported cases of illness from its customers, “all of which have not yet been substantiated by means of a link to the affected products and medical records”, the group said.

“Reports of illness are closely monitored as the safety of our customers is our first priority.”

'FULLY TREATABLE'

Prof Lucia Anelich, who has a PhD in microbiology and is a specialist in food-borne diseases, explains that when cans are damaged during the filling process, microscopic holes — also called pinholes — can form in the cans, which is potentially very risky. The processing of canned fish is focused specifically on eliminating the micro-organism Clostridium botulinum, which produces the toxin botulin and when eaten, causes the disease called botulism, she said. “So when a can is damaged, this bacterium can enter the can through such pinholes from the external environment and produce the toxin, which can cause severe illness.” 

Anelich stressed that food-borne botulism is extremely rare, but can be severe when contracted.

Symptoms included difficulty swallowing or speaking, facial weakness, blurred or double vision, trouble breathing, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps.

“With proper treatment, one can fully recover from botulism,” Anelich said.

Asked how many cans of the affected products the Shoprite group had sold at branches of its four supermarket brands before the recall was announced, the group said it was “not allowed” to divulge any figures “because of the communication with the National Regulator of Compulsory Specifications”.

As soon as Shoprite became aware of the defect, the group said, it placed a point-of-sale prohibition in its almost 3,000 branches in SA and 14 African countries to prohibit the selling of “possibly defective products”.

Asked what percentage of the sold, recalled stock has been returned to stores, Shoprite said that was difficult to confirm at this stage “as the returned products still need to be validated as being part of the affected stock”.

GET IN TOUCH: You can contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via e-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za or on Twitter: @wendyknowler.


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