Koo recall: none of the cans was supplied to other food manufacturers

Something like this has never happened before, says joint CEO of canning firm

28 July 2021 - 18:53
By wendy knowler AND Wendy Knowler
The affected Koo and Hugo products were manufactured between May 1 2019 and May 5 2021.
Image: Sunday Times/Kevin Sutherland The affected Koo and Hugo products were manufactured between May 1 2019 and May 5 2021.

The company that manufactured the millions of cans recalled this week by Tiger Brands — due to a minute risk of a very low number of cans developing leaks — did not supply the cans in question to any other food manufacturer.

Asha Chhita, joint CEO of the Germiston-based Golden Era Group of Companies, which includes Gayatri Cans, confirmed on Wednesday that the family-run company had established the root cause of the seam welding issue and was thus able to determine that the potentially problematic batches of cans had only been supplied to Tiger Brands.

“We use the latest canning technology and installed the current production line in 2017,” she said. “We drive manufacturing excellence in our business and will continue to strive to supply a zero-defect product.”

The company was established by her grandfather in 1942. “Something like this has never happened before,” she said.

Asked about the financial impact on the company, Chhita said it was too early to tell.

Industry sources have expressed surprise at the scale of Tiger Brands’s recall, given the extremely low risk of consumer harm. Not a single consumer has complained about a leaking can of Koo canned veggies, and the company has no evidence that any leaking cans were placed on sale.

Tiger Brands is expecting about 20-million cans to be returned to it from consumers and the trade, and has quarantined another 36-million, and if it can’t find a way to detect which of those are absolutely safe to consume, all 56-million of them will have to be destroyed.

Something like this has never happened before.
Asha Chhita

The defective seal has in a very low number of cases resulted in a small leak that creates a risk of microbial contamination and what Tiger Brands terms “a low probability of illness and injury if the contaminated product is consumed”.

Seven batches of cans — about 21-million of them — supplied by Golden Era to Tiger Brands between February and April this year, were found to contain about two dozen leaking cans. Only the seventh batch, comprising about a million cans — had gone out into the trade.

In a “stress test” on a batch of about 280,000 cans that were trucked from Gauteng to the Western Cape, just two of those were found to have leaked at the seam.

Tiger Brands then opted to recall all products in cans supplied by Golden Era, going back to the contract inception in May 2019.

As tiny as the risk was, said Tiger Brands CEO Noel Doyle, any risk that its customers could suffer harm was not acceptable to the company.

Very low health risk

Commenting on the recall, Pretoria-based microbiologist prof Lucia Anelich stressed that the risk of someone contracting potentially fatal botulism was very low.

“Commercial canning is very successful in achieving the goal of eliminating Clostridium botulinum which produces the toxin botulin (a neurotoxin) and when ingested causes the disease called botulism,” she said. “Most incidents of foodborne botulism occur from home-made canned or bottled foods. On very rare occasions, however, problems occur during commercial canning just as in any other manufacturing process.

“When a can is damaged even after proper processing, this bacterium could potentially enter the can through pinholes and defective seams, from the external environment and produce the toxin.”

But such contamination was extremely rare, she said, and the risk is therefore very low.

Symptoms of foodborne botulism include difficulty swallowing or speaking, dry mouth, facial weakness on both sides of the face, blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps and paralysis.

As for the timing, symptoms of foodborne botulism typically begin between 12 and 36 hours after the toxin has entered the body, Anelich said, “but depending on how much toxin was consumed, the start of symptoms may range from as little as six hours to a few days, sometimes as late as 10 days”.

“People receiving treatment recover in about 90% to 95% of cases, whereas it can be fatal to those not treated in 40% to 50% of cases.”