Tiger Brands following 'legal process' to determine liability for listeriosis outbreak

17 February 2020 - 11:42 By Naledi shange and wendy knowler
The foods which were linked to listeria are Enterprise Russians‚ Rainbow Chicken polony and Enterprise polony.
The foods which were linked to listeria are Enterprise Russians‚ Rainbow Chicken polony and Enterprise polony.
Image: 123RF/ John Mcnamara

Tiger Brands has declined to respond in detail to an article published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine indicating that the source of the listeriosis outbreak in SA was its Enterprise factory in Polokwane, Limpopo.

“There is a legal process currently under way to determine liability for the outbreak. As a company, Tiger Brands is committed to following the legal process with honesty and integrity. We hope for a resolution as soon as possible for all parties concerned,” company spokesperson Nevashnee Naicker said in a written reply to TimesLIVE.

The article to which she was reacting fingered the company as being behind the world’s biggest listeriosis outbreak — in SA.

Authored by 31 scientists, health professionals and academics, including nine employees of the Centre for Enteric Diseases in the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), the article revealed how “whole genome sequencing” technology overwhelmingly proved that the source of the outbreak was polony produced by Enterprise.

The authors, led by Dr Juno Thomas of the NICD, did not name the source in the article, referring to the Polokwane plant as “the production facility”.

Samples taken from nine children at a Soweto creche who fell ill and were taken to hospital in mid-January after eating polony identified a specific strain of listeria monocytogenes ST6, which was subsequently found in polony in the creche’s fridge, sealed polony loaves at the Polokwane plant and in environmental samples taken in the plant.

The authors thanked paediatrician Dr Preeteeben Vallabh at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital “for her recognition of the nursery outbreak” when the children were admitted.

In December 2018, the Johannesburg high court granted an order certifying a class action against Tiger Brands which should  determine whether the company is liable for the outbreak.

The legal case relies on the fact that the outbreak strain of listeria monocytogenes, which infected 91% of the people who died‚ was found at the Polokwane factory.

The class action is being brought by Richard Spoor Attorneys and LHL Attorneys, with US-based firm Marler Clark as a consultant to the attorneys, on behalf of those made ill by listeria-tainted polony and the families of those who lost loved ones.

Three days after the class action was granted, Tiger Brands announced that its Polokwane plant had been given the green light by health authorities to reopen, stressing: “No liability has been established against the company for the listeriosis outbreak.

“The legal process of the class action must still take its course.”

Personal injury lawyer and expert on food-borne illness litigation Bill Marler of Marler Clark, who is giving the class action lawyers financial and legal support, told TimesLIVE that contacting the victims has proved extremely difficult.

“Only about 400 of the affected people — less than half — have come forward so far,” Marler said.

That’s despite an intensive advertising campaign paid for by Tiger Brands and Marler on behalf of the class action attorneys.

A neutral, court-appointed company has been tasked with identifying and contacting the victims on behalf of the NICD.

Marler said the level of detail that the NICD and the World Health Organisation (WHO) had produced to link the illness with the Tiger Brands product was “more overwhelming than any food-borne disease case I’ve been involved with in 27 years”.

The unique features of SA’s listeriosis outbreak, according to the article’s authors, was that it happened “in a middle-income country with a high prevalence of HIV infection and a high fertility rate”.

Of the 937 cases identified, half were associated with pregnancy.

Listeriosis is the most deadly food-borne disease, with 20%-30% of victims dying from it.

The article noted that the number of cases decreased “dramatically” after the recall of the implicated Tiger Brands products on March 4 2018.