Noël van Zyl, buying manager at Interfruit, which supplies Woolworths with fresh produce, said on Friday it has become clear over the past 18 months that the country’s water quality is declining drastically.
“We recently discovered traces of Escherichia coli on fresh produce,” he said.
Van Zyl, who spoke to members of niche research area The Cultural Dynamics of Water at the North-West University’s Vaal Triangle Campus, said Woolworths is particularly concerned about the water in the Hartbeespoort Dam (the Crocodile River) and the Vaal River, which is used for irrigation by some of the chain’s suppliers.
He pointed out that Woolworths’ products must comply with international standards set by GlobalGap (Global Partnership for Good Agricultural Practice). Among other things, this means water used for irrigation must be of pristine quality.
According to Van Zyl, Woolworths didn’t have these problems five years ago. “The biggest problems we had at that stage were frost and chemicals… but water issues? No, never. How is it possible that this has happened?” he wanted to know.
When Woolworths buys fresh produce, they test the produce for bacteria - including E.coli - and certain chemicals, he said. If a test is positive, their contract with the supplier is terminated immediately.
The termination of contracts has far-reaching consequences.
Fresh produce which is turned away usually ends up on the “open market”, where it is sold to the informal sector which, in turn, sells the produce from road-side stalls.
This tainted food is bought by the poor, leading to diseases being spread among those who are most vulnerable, Van Zyl said.
Thomas du Toit, representative of the non-governmental organisation Save the Vaal (Save), said government should be “shocked” to its senses, since they are the custodians of the country’s water resources and they are allowing the water quality to deteriorate at this rate.
Van Zyl said Woolworths doesn’t want empty shelves, but if the country’s water quality continues to deteriorate, this will be everyone’s fate.
Woolworths prefers not to import food, since they want to keep their carbon footprint as small as possible.
“We try to buy most of our products locally, but the opportunities - due to the pollution of water resources - are more and more limited and the number of suppliers is dropping.
“The future is very uncertain because we’ve never had to deal with a problem like this. My biggest concern is that if this is how things are going now, what will the situation look like in five years’ time?”
He also said it is “incredible” how weather patterns have changed over the past five to ten years. A decade ago it was possible to plant courgettes in Musina in the winter, but these days the frost is too severe.
“You would never see frost in Musina in June.”
Woolworths does import asparagus from Peru and small sweetcorn and beans from Kenya.