Watchdog's hands tied on processed meat facilities

Cape Town - The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) told Parliament on Friday morning that it did not have the mandate to proactively review the standards of meat processing facilities and factories in the country, but could check them against legislated standards if delegated to do so.

The regulator’s appearance comes at the end of a week where processed meat producers, particularly Tiger Brands’ Enterprise Foods and RCL’s Rainbow Chicken, were left reeling after Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi announced that SA’s latest and worst listeriosis outbreak came from the source of a meat processing facility.

Enterprise Foods has since had to have its products, particularly polony and Russians, recalled from supermarket shelves. Tiger Brands has insisted that there was no evidence of a direct link between its own products and the 180 listeria related deaths which occurred in the country since late last year. Close to 1000 people are said to have been infected.

Acting CEO of the NRCS, Edward Mamadise, told Parliament’s portfolio committee on trade and industry that the process of harmonising food checks under the regulator was still ongoing and, as such, it could only conduct checks if delegated to.

“As things currently stand the mandate of inspecting food is fragmented. There was talk of harmonisation but that has not happened. In the food space we act only upon delegation. It is not currently within our direct mandate,” said Mamadise.

Mamadise said the NRCS regulates the canned meat as well as the processing facilities of these products. He said these products are not currently affected by the listeriosis outbreak.

“We check to see if canned meat products are packed in hermetically sealed containers which are subjected to a heat process to render a commercially sterilised product. This is a product that is processed to reduce the number or activity of microorganisms so that none are detectable in the final product,” he said.

He said the heat process also ensured that there was no spoilage of toxic exposure for the product. He said processed meats are only subjected to pasteurisation and are stored and transported under strict refrigeration.

He said canned meat regulated by the NRCS is not allowed to be sold or distributed before it is physically inspected. Mamadise told the committee that the regulator was working to clear backlogs where it came to letters of approval in sectors including the electro-technical and automative sectors.

Committee chairperson Joan Fubbs raised concerns that if clarity is not provided in the regulation of processed meats, it could cause a similar fallout to the catastrophic circumstance SA currently faces.

“This is at the heart of something serious and if you are going to adopt this with a cavalier attitude then we are going to have a problem. If people approve casually and tick the wrong boxes in the process then we as a committee will not accept it,” said Fubbs.

Committee member for the Democratic Alliance Dean Macpherson described the hurdles in finalising the NCRS’s role as processed meat regulator "a bombshell”, adding that the regulator was being “stonewalled”.

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