Living in Listerialand
Over-reaction once polony was fingered as the culprit was inevitable, and understandable
There’s no way I can fill this week’s column with anything else other than the L-word.
Firstly because, in my 20 years of consumer journalism, I don’t recall a bigger story than this listeriosis outbreak. And, secondly, because I’ve been living in Listerialand since last Sunday’s astonishing revelation that the faeces of the children who got terrible diarrhoea after eating polony at their crèche in January led the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) to the Enterprise plant in Polokwane.
It’s thanks to some very first-world, very expensive technology called whole genome sequencing – which does for finding the source of food-borne disease outbreaks what DNA testing has done for nailing criminals – that a solid link could be made. That’s what the lawyers are going to be relying on when they take on Tiger Brands.More than 90% of the 967 cases confirmed so far in this horrific outbreak were found to have the ST6 strain of listeria, a strain unique to South Africa. Those Soweto kids had been eating, among other things, Enterprise polony. Swabs – lots of them – subsequently taken at the Enterprise polony plant in Polokwane were tested in a lab and found to contain ST6.Since early January, food safety expert Dr Lucia Anelich has been telling journalists that the source of the outbreak, given that its victims were scattered across the country, both rich and poor, in state and private hospitals, had to be a major food factory with a national footprint.And because listeriosis is linked to ready-to-eat food – food that’s not heated or cooked by consumers before consumption, thus killing the listeria – she guessed it was a range of cold meat, including polony, viennas and ham.“It’s definitely something which a lot of people eat a lot of the time,” she told me back in January.
But everyone carried on eating their polony sandwiches and kotas, their viennas and their ham, just the same. When I asked the major supermarkets a month ago whether they’d noted a drop in cold meat sales, they all said no. Not at all.
Now polony – all polony – is being regarded as sure death by the masses.
“We must get rid of all this poison,” said the Economic Freedom Fighters, taking it upon themselves to remove any remaining brands from supermarket fridges this week – brands which aren’t part of the recall.
Over-reaction was inevitable, and understandable. Listeriosis is an awful disease and in this outbreak the numbers so far point to a death rate of more than one in four. And 183 lives lost due to eating contaminated food is a national disaster.But given how widely cold meat has been consumed, and on a daily basis by many, some are asking why there haven’t been even more cases.According to the NICD, most people who eat listeria-contaminated food won’t get sick. They get no symptoms – or if they do, they’ll be so mild, a slight “runny tummy”, for example – that they take no notice.
It’s the high-risk groups that are most susceptible. The very young and the old. Pregnant women. Those with compromised immune systems. The vulnerable, essentially.Their flu-like symptoms become febrile gastroenteritis or meningitis when the bacteria enters their nervous systems.
Also, food products are usually contaminated in the factory after cooking and processing, so it’s not every pack of polony, for example, which is affected.#SHELFIE