Listeriosis outbreak will not lead to job losses for now - expert

Cape Town - The outbreak and subsequent spreading of listeriosis contamination from certain meat processing plants in South Africa will likely not lead to job losses in the short term, Dawie Maree, head of marketing and information at FNB Business Agriculture, told Fin24 on Monday.

"At a manufacturing plant most of the jobs are probably permanent and the company should have business contingency plans. In the short term, workers might not go to work, but will probably still receive pay. Companies usually also have insurance for this kind of outbreak," he said.

"However, if they end up having to close the factory all together, that will have an impact. I am not a food scientist, but I don't think this will end up happening. They will probably sterilise the processing facility, keep it under observation, slowly start production again and monitor it."

On the other hand, Maree thinks the huge recall of different products will likely have an impact on the profits of the specific companies involved.

"I don't think it will have a huge impact on SA's gross domestic product (GDP), but rather make a direct impact on the profits of these companies," he said.

"Consumers' trust has been damaged. They will think twice before buying processed meat perhaps. We might even see an uptick in demand for fresh meat types. Maybe there will be a switch from processed food to fresh options, but the consumer will have to make that decision."

He expects the producers of the recalled products to do some damage control. He does not think the impact will be negative in the long term.

"Most of these companies are reputable and will win the consumers' trust back, but it will take some time," said Maree.

"For some consumers processed meat is the only or most important protein source. They will likely return to these products once they are convinced it is safe."

Listeriosis infections can never be ruled out completely, Wessel Lemmer, senior agricultural economist at Absa, told Fin24 on Monday.

He explained that in a country like the US the occurrence of listeriosis infection in people is about 0.24 cases per 100 000 of the population per year. The target in the US is to limit infections to 0.2 cases per 100 000 of the population per year.

In South African terms that would translate to about 112 people infected per year. Yet, research shows that 948 people were infected by listeriosis over the past six months already.

Lemmer added that if locating the sources of infection is successful and it is dealt with efficiently, the impact on the food industry should be limited.  

"It is evident that the listeriosis outbreak in SA is significant and the highest occurrence is in Gauteng. However, it seems as if the number of cases is declining as the sources of infections are located. It seems as if the cases are limited to processed raw meat and supermarkets already started to withdraw suspect products," said Lemmer.

"It is possible to deal with the crises speedily and we expect to see a significant decline in reported cases within the next six weeks.

In his view, SA’s exports of processed raw meat products are limited and a ban on these exports may have less of an impact on the industry.

"If we are successful in locating the sources of infection and dealing efficiently with those, the impact on the food industry should be limited. At consumer level, exercise basic hygiene and cook your food. This will help to contain the number of [infection] cases," he said.

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