Tiger Brands wants the government to establish a new food safety and hygiene standard, said CEO Lawrence MacDougall.
MacDougall said the food group, which is at the centre of a listeriosis crisis that has killed more than 200 people, would also like a food safety council to be set up.
Listeria is a bacteria that can cause the bacterial disease listeriosis, which is an infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteria.
Listeriosis can cause serious illness in pregnant women, newborns, adults with weakened immune systems and the elderly.
“In a post listeriosis environment, you would probably have hoped there were industry standards and that the department of health and industry was collaborating closer to keep pace with developments in the industry and within immune deficient individuals. I suppose that is where I would like us to get to.”
“There needs to be a new food safety standard in the industry. The current standard is less than 100 colony-forming units (cfus) per 100 grams. As we have investigated and looked internationally, we still don’t know where the department of health is going to end up. Collaborative discussions haven’t taken place yet.”
A colony-forming unit is a term used to estimate the number of viable bacteria or fungal cells in a sample.
“The next level would be zero or less than 10 cfus in 25 grams of product. That is the next step up. There are also suggestions internationally. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are probably the most stringent. They are suggesting that would be a number you would have to achieve at the end of the shelf life for that particular product, not at production.
“You would have to certify the product would have less than [number to be determined] cfus at the end of its shelf life. We are waiting for the department of health.
“On May 18, the department and several of its internal bodies met, but we didn’t get feedback about what happened there. We are hoping to get an invite to broader collaborative discussions after this.”
The particular standard that covers processed meat products in South Africa is South African National Standard 885, which is a voluntary industry guideline.
The last update of that standard was published in September 2011. The standard includes requirements for a food factory or processing facility, requirements for ingredients and the product as well as methods for microbiological and chemical examination.
“The working group had input into guidelines from the South African Meat Processors Association, the department of health, department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications and the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, among others,” said Zain Khan, a Tiger Brands spokesperson.
The question of food safety
Foster Mohale, a Department of Health spokesperson, said the state was discussing what the best way forward was to ensure food safety.
Currently three Tiger Brands plants that produce ready-to-eat meat, including polony, are closed following the listeriosis crisis.
MacDougall said he hoped for a new food safety and hygiene standard to be in place by the time Tiger Brands is ready to reopen the three plants.
“I hope it is done before we are ready. We are still working. We are still doing consumer research as well. I don’t want to jump the gun in any way. Not from a brand, food safety or legislative perspective. I’m being cautious and deliberate about these plans. I’m hoping, after the first meeting on May 18, we can quickly move to get resolution. I would be more comfortable if those standards were clear.”
MacDougall said there was no clear time-frame for the plants to reopen.
“I’m waiting for the consumer research to come back to understand what impact there has been on the brand in the industry. We need to make sure we are done with all the rehabilitation, the training and the repairs and maintenance on our plants.
“The consumer research will give us the most insightful data we can work from. Out of that we will determine when is the right time to open, once we know what the minimum local standards are.
“We brought in international and local experts to help us with the root cause analysis. All the analysis thus far has shown we have been well within food safety standards. All our products were tested and the environment tested below 10 cfus where the standard is 100 cfus. We have seen nothing that would indicate negligence.”
MacDougall said the envisaged food safety council would start investing in research and technology and ensure that food safety standards keep pace with developments around consumers and within the food safety industry. The food safety council could be a private sector initiative or a joint private sector and government entity, he said.
Regarding the connection between Tiger Brands and the listerosis deaths, MacDougall said the group had notified that the company’s plant had listeria, “as many manufacturers have and as exists in the industry. We did find ST6 in our Polokwane plant, in one particular area and one product”.
“The next step is to take that particular ST6 and link the DNA of that ST6 strain, because there are several strains. You take the DNA and match it to people who tested positive for it. Those results and that information we haven’t received from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases yet.”
“They might have contracted listerosis but whether they actually got it from product eaten in the industry and our plant is what we need to determine. We are trying to close that loop as fast as we can.”
Tiger Brands CEO: I'm still the best man for the job
MacDougall, who joined the group two years ago, believes he is still the best man for the job despite the listerosis crisis that has consumed the group.
“I am. I’m enjoying it. I’m getting good feedback and we are making great progress. I have the skills and the experience to take the organisation forward.”
“I did the homework before I joined and what I saw was a really big company with significant market share in the local industry with fantastic brands. Despite some missteps along the way, the group has great heritage and lots of investment in the communities.”
“As I mentioned in the strategy, Tiger Brands has had silos. Each of the businesses ran as independent units. The strength that we have going forward is to create a more homogenised business where we have common standards across the group, we offer people great opportunities for employment and we take our brands broader into the continent.”
“It has been great to put the strategy together for brands that are strong. There is a great cost-conscious culture in the business.”
“Would I wish this crisis on my worst enemy? No. Would I ever want to experience it again? Absolutely no.”
“What I can do is my best so this never happens again. When I came in the board was clear they wanted to use some of my multi-national experience to bring in no compromise on quality, safety and internal controls. It is unfortunate that 18 months later this happened.”
MacDougall said ultimately his position as Tiger Brands CEO rested with Tiger Brands chairman Khotso Mokhele and the board.* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER