Inside the killer polony scandal
Tiger Brands denies culpability as class action lawsuit looms
South Africans were likely eating contaminated polony from the Enterprise factory in Polokwane for more than a year before the deadly listeria bacteria was finally identified by health authorities.
And even after being warned last month that listeria was rampant at its Polokwane factory, the Tiger Brands operation continued to churn out tons of potentially dangerous products, choosing to do only a "silent recall" of one brand, Mielie Kip, on February 14. The factory was shut down only last weekend, after the listeria strain was confirmed as being the deadly ST6.
These unsettling facts have prompted international and local health experts to warn that South Africa is sitting on a food safety time bomb after the most serious listeriosis outbreak in world history, which has claimed at least 183 lives.And Tiger Brands faces a potentially huge class action lawsuit, which could be led by prominent US food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who arrived in South Africa this week.
Health authorities have slammed hygiene conditions at the Polokwane factory, and its shortcomings in food safety management, saying the plant was ridden with listeria.
"This kind of thing doesn't just suddenly spring up overnight," said South African Institute of Environmental Health president Selva Mudaly. "It's not just in a meat-slicing machine, it's in everything from the nuts and bolts, every part of the factory that you could imagine."
The Sunday Times has confirmed that the factory has had other safety issues recently. Last month 33 workers were briefly hospitalised after an ammonia gas leak.
Dr Juno Thomas, head of the Centre for Enteric Diseases at the National Institution of Communicable Diseases, confirmed this week that a patient infected with the ST6 strain had been identified in January last year - but that it was only last week that authorities managed to trace the strain to the Polokwane factory. She said it was highly probable that the patient had eaten food from the factory.
"This particular strain has been around for over a year," she said.
"It is difficult to say how exactly this happened, but there were shortcomings in their [Enterprise's] food safety management."
"The building is old, so infrastructure was in a state of disrepair. There were issues with inadequate general cleaning, condensation, ingredient dust in airconditioners and fans - subtle things that are important for listeria growth."
Thomas said the bacteria was so widespread it had grown into the machinery, which meant it was on the exterior plastic casings, metal binding clips and inside the cut ends of wrapping. Anything it touched at a retailer would have been infected.
Thomas said while tests had not found contaminated meat, the fact that the packaging was contaminated would mean the meat became infected as soon as it was opened. She said it would be difficult to identity contamination in the meat because it occurred in random areas of the product."Infrastructure should have been divided into different zones, raw from processed, for instance. You try to limit cross-contamination by sanitising after external and internal movement by staff."
Thomas said poor legislation and safety protocols in South Africa meant the onus was on the manufacturer to keep food "safe".
"This is one of the largest plants in the country, it really is. Up to 200 tons of meat products were being churned out of there monthly.
"Certainly they were responsible for coming up with their own risk-assessment controls and monitoring programmes. Listeria prevention, monitoring and control should have been a priority."
Ambatha Abraham is among the youngest victims of the outbreak.
She was just six days old when she succumbed to the disease on February 20, passed on to her by her unknowing mother.
"There is not a minute that goes by when I am not thinking about her," a devastated Lindelwa Abraham told the Sunday Times this week. "I could have been bonding with her. Instead I am wondering why I did not know about this listeriosis."
Throughout out her pregnancy, Abraham was very cautious about what she ate. As a domestic worker, her lunchbox was always packed with yoghurt, fruit and a polony sandwich. Sometimes she packed a russian or vienna sausage. She attended antenatal care classes at her local clinic and took the vitamin supplements prescribed. "I was over the moon when the doctors told me it was a girl."
Two days after being discharged from the clinic after giving birth, she noticed Ambatha was struggling to breathe. The infant was immediately hospitalised, and began vomiting and having seizures before she died.
Doctors confirmed the death had been caused by listeria.
"I wish I had known about it [listeriosis] before. I only became aware of it on that day. As I followed the news this week, I see it has been around since December last year. I wish someone could have warned me about it before. I would have been more careful. I know she picked it up from me."Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall said this week he had been in meetings around the clock. "Our first priority is public health."
Asked about why consumers had not been made aware of the Mielie Kip recall, he said the recall from distributors had been "precautionary" as the levels of listeria were low, and safe for human consumption.
MacDougall said management did not know there was deadly listeria on its premises. He said they only received the NICD's DNA data about the strain of listeria on Thursday this week.
"It is premature to characterise our Polokwane facility as 'ground zero'. I am devastated that our facilities have now been linked to ST6. We are putting all our energy and resource to getting to bottom of the crisis."
Yesterday a Tiger Brands spokeswoman denied that listeria had in fact been found in any product except in nonlethal amounts in the Mielie Kip.
Asked about claims that the ST6 strain had been traced back to having been in the factory in January last year, Nevashnee Naiker said no person who had taken ill had been linked to Tiger Brands polony.
She said no recent tests had found listeria in the products made at the factory.
"The environmental health practitioners working with NICD have not found any listeria in any product. To say it was in our factory in 2017, we need to confirm a person had eaten Enterprise product and had not got it from anywhere else."The company said it had been audited by international food safety consultancy DQS, which declined to comment.
The death toll is expected to climb and the company faces a class action law suit.
Top US food safety attorney Marler will be assisting local attorneys with seeking compensation on behalf of the families of those who died, and to meet the medical costs of those who fell ill. Those affected could suffer from gastroenteritis and, at worst, meningitis. At least one child survivor has permanent brain damage as a result.
Marler said the class action against Tiger Brands would probably involve twice the number of victims confirmed so far.
"We are looking at about 2,000 cases and 400 deaths in the end."
In terms of who could be held to account, especially for the 183 deaths, the Institute of Environmental Health's Mudaly said it would be difficult.
"It comes down to how you prove that the person got sick from a specific piece of processed meat, when that meat could have been eaten two months ago. It's going to be a complete dogfight."
The Department of Health was alerted to the outbreak in July. Thomas said that despite government requests from September that companies test for listeria, and in November that they send samples, most producers, including Tiger, did not comply.