Rob Davies. Picture: GCIS
Rob Davies. Picture: GCIS

SA’s listeriosis outbreak has negatively affected trading partners’ perceptions of the safety of food exports from SA and could have a financial effect that extends far beyond the companies at the heart of the current crisis, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies told Parliament on Wednesday.

"We have a significant reputational challenge, which we now need to confront," he said.

"Recovering from incidents like this is a massive challenge for companies concerned. They need to embrace it with a spirit of transparency. The same applies to us as a country," he told a joint sitting of parliament’s portfolio committees on agriculture forestry and fisheries; health; and trade and industry.

SA’s listeriosis outbreak is the worst in recorded history and has been responsible for 185 deaths since January 2017, according to the Department of Health.

On March 4 the National Institute for Communicable Diseases identified Listeria Monocytogenes, the bacteria that causes listeriosis, in ready-to-eat processed meats made by Tiger Brands and RCL Foods. The bacteria was found in samples of Tiger Brands’s Enterprise polony and sausages and in polony made by RCL Foods.

This prompted the National Consumer Commission to order product recalls and the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries to suspect their export certificates. Since then, Tiger Brands has also recalled its Snax range of products due to listeria contamination.

SA’s exports of sausages and similar products were worth an average of $18m a year, and its exports of other prepared meat products averaged $45m a year, the department of trade and industry’s chief director for international trade and economic development Niki Kruger told MPs.

While the exports of the affected products represented just 0.01% of SA’s global exports, the listeriosis outbreak had already affected exports of other foodstuffs, she said. Rwanda banned imports of South African dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables in December.

Several other countries have banned the import of South African processed meat products, including Zambia, Malawi, Botswana and Namibia.

Determining exactly how listeria had been introduced into Tiger Brands and RCL Foods’ production facilities was vital, Davies said. "The sooner we can come to some certainty about the common thread between the factories, the better. If there is a listeria outbreak in another country traced back to SA we are in big, deep trouble," he added.

Davies blamed industry for a lack of compulsory safety standards for processed meat products, saying business had pushed back against attempts by the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications to do so four years ago. The regulator referred the issue to the Department of Health, which has yet to craft legally binding safety standards for these products.

"We need to rapidly and urgently develop a compulsory standard for processed meat. That is a no-brainer," Davies said.