Red meat industry body queries listeriosis 'misinformation'

Cape Town - The Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF) and its member organisations are concerned that South Africa's entire processed meat industry has been implicated in the listeriosis outbreak without justification.

The RMIF and its members, including the South African Meat Processors Association (SAMPA), represent the entire red meat value chain, from the primary producer through to the consumer.

The RMIF is concerned that lives have been lost as a result of the listeriosis outbreak.

In a statement issued on Monday, the red meat body claims press coverage following a statement by the minister of health relating to the origin of the listeriosis outbreak, and subsequent media coverage, has had "devastating consequences" and a "catastrophic impact" on the entire red meat industry.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said in a statement on March 4 that polony was a definite source of the outbreak, but warned that products such as viennas, Russians, frankfurters, other sausages and cold meats not typically cooked could also be affected due to the risk of cross contamination.

Tiger Brands subsidiary Enterprise Foods' factory in Polokwane was identified as the source of the listeriosis outbreak. At the time, the health minister also singled out two more facilities, one in Germiston and one in the Free State, pending more tests.

At the time 948 cases had been detected and 180 deaths reported, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

The outbreak has led to retailers pulling certain brands of processed meat products off supermarket shelves and offering refunds.

The RMIF said it the statement it is concerned about what it calls the "misinformation" that resulted due to “a lack of detail” in the minister's statement. The RMIF claims this "misinformation" is not only detrimental to the consumer, but also to the local red meat industry.

'Listeria hysteria'

"The average consumer is being led into a listeria hysteria, which is having unfortunate consequences for families who rely on processed meat as their source of protein," the red meat body said.  

The RMIF has requested all relevant information relating to tests conducted by the National Department of Health and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases as referred to in the minister's media release, to determine the exact nature and ambit of the testing conducted.

"Food safety remains at the heart of the red meat industry and the RMIF would like to assure the consumer that everything possible is being done with the utmost urgency to ensure that our consumers’ personal health and well-being is protected, not only as a matter of routine, but with increased vigilance," the red meat body said.

It explained that listeria monocytogenes is the primary cause of the illness called listeriosis. This bacterium is widely found in nature. It has been isolated from humans, a wide variety of animals and birds, animal products, fresh produce, food packaging and processing environments.

Because of this, the RMIF believes there is no single, simple answer for the recent outbreak. The organisation also argues that more virulent listeria strains could perhaps be emerging.
The red meat body claims it had to drag government to court on several occasions to implement independent meat inspection services in terms of the Meat Safety Act.
"The outbreak has emphasised the responsibility of the red meat industry together with other food industries to provide for proper and improved hygiene during the production, processing, packing and preparation of red meat and red meat products," said the RMIF.

The organisation cautioned consumers not to accept that contamination can only come from the facilities implicated in the minister's media release, but to adopt basic hygiene practices.

"As things stand, there are no regulated requirements for the testing of listeria monocytongenes in ready-to-eat foods in SA. SAMPA members adhere to all guidelines of the department," said the RMIF.
It also urged close cooperation between the respective departments in establishing food safety guidelines and to utilise opportunities to interact with industry on the forums provided.

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