South Africa doesn't meet world health standards for food inspectors

07 March 2018 - 06:30
By Nico Gous
Medical technologist Bolele Disenyeng, seen in a lab at The National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg. The institute is dealing with the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa.
Image: ALON SKUY Medical technologist Bolele Disenyeng, seen in a lab at The National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg. The institute is dealing with the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa.

South Africa has just one environmental health practitioner per 30‚000 people‚ three times fewer than the ratio recommended by the World Health Organisation.

In the wake of the world’s worst ever listeriosis outbreak – in which at least 190 have died and close to 1‚000 infected – questions are now being asked about whether South Africa has enough people checking the health and safety standards for food production. It seems that‚ at least in terms of the number of environmental health practitioners‚ the country is missing the mark.

The World Health Organisation recommends a ratio of one environmental health practitioner for every 10‚000 citizens – but South African Institute of Environmental Health president Dr Selva Mudaly said the country was currently closer to one for every 30‚000 South Africans.

“We have not met that requirement because of finances and other requirements besides environmental health. There’s water‚ there’s sanitation. So a municipality has many challenges‚” he said.

Mudaly said South Africa needs a better plan for food safety.

“We are not proactive. That’s the problem. We don’t pre-plan‚” Mudaly said. “Maybe the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) needs more laboratories to deal with this kind of thing.”

Another solution was the formation of a central agency that monitors food safety from “farm to fork”‚ said Gareth Lloyd-Jones‚ managing director of food production hygiene at Ecowize. This‚ he said‚ was the long-term fix to avoiding another listeriosis-type outbreak.

“As a result of this dysfunctional system‚ the industry has been largely self-regulated‚” Lloyd-Jones said. “The standard is effectively driven from the retailer‚ who then monitors the primary production facilities‚ who monitor their supply chain‚ and so on.”

Lloyd-Jones said‚ however‚ the current listeriosis outbreak and product recall was “extraordinary”.

“No matter what country you are‚ this was going to be a challenge‚” he said.

Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall explained on Monday how the company’s subsidiary Enterprise was embroiled in a listeriosis outbreak that has left 180 people dead and infected 948.

MacDougall said the government had confirmed that listeriosis monocytogenes strain ST 6 was linked to the outbreak‚ but did not link it to the deaths. He said Enterprise was still conducting its own tests.

“There is no direct link with the deaths to our products that we are aware of at this point. Nothing‚” MacDougall said. “At this stage‚ we are acting on information we got from the government.”

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced on Sunday that the source of the listeria outbreak was the Enterprise food production facility in Polokwane‚ Limpopo. Enterprise’s factory in Germiston was also affected.

The National Consumer Commission (NCC) ordered Enterprise on Sunday to remove three products from store shelves. MacDougall said the company had decided to voluntarily recall all products produced in its facilities in Polokwane and Germiston.

Restaurant Association of South Africa (Rasa) CEO Wendy Alberts said they have approved suppliers on their database. They pass on notices from these suppliers to members to keep them up to date. Rasa members include independent restaurants‚ fast food outlets‚ coffee shops‚ hospital canteens and mobile restaurants.

Alberts said their members increased their health and hygiene standards after Motsoaledi’s announcement on Sunday.

Meanwhile‚ human rights lawyer Richard Spoor said family members of those who died or those who became ill from listeriosis could bring a class action lawsuit against Tiger Brands.

Spoor said only a handful of representatives were needed to start a class action lawsuit. The Consumer Protection Act also allows for a class action lawsuit. Other affected parties could join the class action suit later.

“You don’t necessarily have to wait… You can get the ball rolling right away.”

Spoor said ready-to-eat food producers have to meet higher standards.

“If you are selling ready-to-eat food the rules are a lot stricter for contamination‚” Spoor said. “Especially with something like meat where there is a real risk of contamination.”