SA has been seriously warned, maar gaan ons luisteria?
A Stellenbosch expert says the way we handle ready-to-eat food puts SA at massive risk of diseases
The way South Africans handle and store food in their homes could drive the spread of foodborne diseases as pathogens evolve, a Stellenbosch University food scientist has warned.
Prof Pieter Gouws from the food science department, who was also instrumental in establishing the new Centre for Food Safety at the university, said since the outbreak of listeriosis a year ago, the food industry had improved safety standards so much that chances of another outbreak were slim.
But he raised concerns about the way consumers handled food after purchase, saying transportation of ready-to-eat foods and meat products in high daytime temperatures could increase the risk of foodborne diseases.
He said the listeria bacteria, which survive even in fridge-level temperature of 3ºC to 4ºC, multiplied much faster when exposed to temperatures of more than 30ºC.
The Food Safety Centre is a one-of-a-kind applied food science research consortium founded by Stellenbosch University and the food industry after the listeriosis outbreak.
It will provide expert opinion and academic support to the industry, research food safety and work with the government to ensure food safety regulations are based on sound scientific evidence.
Gouws said following the listeriosis outbreak, which registered 1,060 laboratory cases and claimed 216 lives by July last year, SA was in for a food safety management revolution, which might require consumers to rethink how they transported food home and stored it once it was there.
He said consumers who did not follow normal hygiene processes or store food at the right temperature might be creating a breeding ground for more bacteria that could result in foodborne outbreaks.
“We do a lot of things wrong. We go to shops and buy our ready-to-eat foods and meat and don’t put these foods in cooler boxes to keep them cool,” said Gouws.
“By the time we get home after 30 minutes or an hour, the bacteria have multiplied. By the time we put our food in the fridge the damage has already been done.”
Ready-to-eat products such as soft cheeses, avocados, fish, unpasteurised products, spanspek and watermelon are often the culprits of foodborne disease when exposed to unhygienic environments.
Gouws said the outbreak had taught the food industry and microbiologists a valuable lesson about the correct use of sanitisers to kill dynamic pathogens such as listeria. “The age of using one sanitiser to kill all germs is gone,” he said, as such sanitisers had the potential to create superbugs.
“The industry understands better and has a cleverer approach to doing things by targeting pathogens according to the information of the bacteria and how the bacteria react towards sanitisers,” he said.
Another foodborne danger Gouws warned could catch South Africans off guard was salmonella. A recent outbreak in France had shown salmonella organisms evaded even scientific detection processes.
By the end of 2017, France’s salmonella reference centre had reported an “excessive number” of cases in infants in France, Spain and Greece. A spike in cases in late 2018 was linked to raw milk cheese.
Gouws said scientists’ failure to nip the outbreak in the bud showed that “we need to understand organisms and the way they operate in different environments”.
“If we don’t take extra care of our food safety, it looks like it is micro-organisms that will have the last word.”