Food safety is a recipe for confusion in South Africa

Not our job, officials say as disease rages

27 May 2018 - 00:00 By CLAIRE KEETON and NASHIRA DAVIDS

Even as the listeriosis death toll tops 200, there is widespread confusion over who is responsible for testing the safety of our food.
The Sunday Times established this week that:
• Fresh fruit and vegetables sold at the Cape Town market in Epping for local consumption have not been routinely tested for pesticides for about five years;
• Government departments are passing the buck over which of them is responsible for testing;
• Tests on imported meat have been stopped even though new listeriosis cases are still being detected, according to the DA.City of Cape Town spokesman Luthando Tyhalibongo said the Department of Health laboratory that used to test fresh produce for pesticide residues "has not been able to render the service for a number of years due to procurement and personnel constraints".
Health Department spokesman Popo Maja told the Sunday Times that it was the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries that tested fresh fruit and vegetables.
But Steve Galane, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said testing for chemical residues fell under the Health Department, although he acknowledged his department was responsible for testing fresh produce for export.
The confusion was uncovered by Testing of Products Initiated by Consumers, a nonprofit that does investigations nominated by the public.When Topic submitted tomato and spinach samples for testing to independent laboratories last year they found residues of the fungicide pyraclostrobin at nearly three times South Africa's maximum level. Traces of propargite, a pesticide to control mites which is banned in the EU, were also found.
Topic chairman Peter Becker said: "There seems to be a gap between the Health Department and the Department of Agriculture with respect to the testing of pesticide levels on produce for the local market.
"There are long-term potential human and economic costs if some kind of poisoning incident happens."
Epping market is Cape Town's major supplier of fresh produce to retailers, handling 280, 000 tons of fruit and vegetables annually. The Durban, Tshwane and Johannesburg fresh produce markets are also bulk suppliers to retailers and individuals.
Officials at the Tshwane and Durban markets told the Sunday Times provincial agricultural departments conducted tests there.
Galane said: "The maximum residue levels [of pesticides] are tested under the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act by the Department of Health ... The residue levels have food safety implications and it is therefore covered in the act [which] all municipalities are authorised to enforce."
Fruit and vegetable producers are required by law to conform with regulations on safe use of pesticides and herbicides.But Becker said: "Everybody along the chain must be held responsible. For at least five years it's been known that no one is testing for pesticides on the fresh produce sold to Cape Town. If there are unethical farmers out there, they could be using this gap."
DA spokeswoman Patricia Kopane said she was concerned that imported meat was not being tested even though six new listeria cases were reported between May 2 and 10, bringing the number of laboratory-confirmed cases to 1,033 since January 1.
Kopane said health officials had told authorities last month it was not necessary to test imported meat since the source of the listeria outbreak had been identified.
Much of the poultry consumed in South Africa is imported from Brazil, which Kopane said did not recognise listeriosis as a communicable disease.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.