Not again! New listeriosis scare centres on frozen veggies
Woolworths recalls frozen product from Hungarian factory implicated in European outbreak
Four months after the shocking revelation that Enterprise’s polony factory in Polokwane was the source of SA’s devastating listeriosis outbreak, comes the news that frozen veggies linked to a listeriosis outbreak in Europe have made their way to our supermarket freezers.
Woolworths raised the alarm locally on Tuesday by announcing a “precautionary” recall of its frozen savoury rice and sweetcorn product, because the sweetcorn comes from the Greenyard Factory in Hungary, which has been implicated as a potential source of the outbreak.
In late June, Hungarian food safety authorities banned the marketing of frozen corn, peas, beans, spinach and sorrel made by the Greenyard plant between Aug 2016 and June 2018, and ordered a product withdrawal and recall.
Greenyard’s products are sold in countries way beyond Europe – products containing its vegetables are now being recalled from supermarkets and hospitality companies across the globe.And consumers, especially in SA, are understandably jittery.
Businesswoman and ethics student Bridget Kelly tweeted: “Now the food security debate should get more attention because we have allowed large retailers to control the food chain and their lack of rigorous quality control across suppliers is life threatening.”
Believed to have begun in 2015, the European outbreak – caused by the same form of the same ST6 strain of Listeria Monocytogenes which has caused SA’s outbreak – has seen 47 people in five European countries fall ill, nine of whom have died.
In contrast, SA’s confirmed cases now number 1,056, with 214 deaths, 34 of them since the source was revealed on March 4.
Listeria, while capable of surviving in fridges and going dormant in freezers – and then becoming active again when exposed to warmer temperatures – is killed by heat. This is why listeriosis outbreaks are usually linked to foods that consumers do not cook or heat before eating.So the European outbreak suggests that not all consumers heat frozen products before consuming them. “Normally a frozen savoury rice with sweetcorn mix would not be a risk if one was sure that the product was going to be cooked,” says Professor Gunnar Sigge, head of Stellenbosch University’s food science department.
“Listeria is quickly killed by temperatures above 72ºC, so it seems that in the case of the European listeriosis outbreak linked to frozen vegetables, consumers are adding the frozen sweet corn straight into salads, for example, rather than cooking it first.“
The Woolworths recall is precautionary, but also very sensible because it’s possible that some consumers would eat some of the mix before cooking it.
“But if the product was cooked according to instructions before consumption, the chance of becoming ill would be very, very low.”Speaking at recent listeriosis workshop in Cape Town, Consumer Protection Act attorney Janusz Luterek said he’d been astounded to discover that it was not uncommon for people to eat certain products raw, despite them being intended to be cooked first – including bacon and boerewors.The other potential danger, Sigge said, is that consumers may transfer the frozen product, containing listeria-infected vegetables, into a container before cooking and then use that container, now possibly contaminated, for other foods, spreading the contamination in the process.
“It’s a small possibility, but again, separation of raw and cooked ingredients is vital for food safety, and in such a scenario, it can’t be guaranteed.”