The World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Picture: ISTOCK
The World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Picture: ISTOCK

SA has three times fewer environmental health practitioners per 10‚000 than the ratio recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In the wake of the world’s worst listeriosis outbreak on record — in which at least 190 have died and close to 1‚000 have been infected — questions are being asked about whether SA has enough people checking the health and safety standards for food production.

It seems that‚ at least in terms of the number of environmental health practitioners‚ the country is missing the mark by some way. The WHO recommends a ratio of one environmental health practitioner for every 10‚000 citizens — but South African Institute of Environmental Health president Dr Selva Mudaly say SA is currently closer to one for every 30‚000 South Africans.

"We have not met that requirement because of finances and other requirements besides environmental health. There’s water‚ there’s sanitation. So a municipality has many challenges."

Mudaly says SA needs a better plan for food safety. "We are not proactive. That’s the problem. We don’t pre-plan. Maybe the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) needs more laboratories to deal with this kind of thing."

Another solution is the formation of a central agency that monitors food safety from "farm to fork"‚ says Gareth Lloyd-Jones‚ MD of food production hygiene at Ecowize. This‚ he says‚ is the long-term fix to avoiding another listeriosis-type outbreak.

"As a result of this dysfunctional system‚ the industry has been largely self-regulated. "The standard is effectively driven from the retailer‚ who then monitors the primary production facilities‚ who monitors their supply chain‚ and so on."

Lloyd-Jones says‚ however‚ the local listeriosis outbreak and product recall is "extraordinary". "No matter what country you are‚ this was going to be a challenge."

Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall explained on Monday how the company’s subsidiary Enterprise was embroiled in a listeriosis outbreak that has left 180 people dead and infected 948. He said the government had confirmed that listeriosis monocytogenes strain ST 6 was linked to the outbreak‚ but did not link it to the deaths. He said Enterprise was still conducting its own tests.

"There is no direct link with the deaths to our products that we are aware of at this point. Nothing‚" MacDougall said. "At this stage‚ we are acting on information we got from the government."

On Sunday, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced that the source of the listeria outbreak was the Enterprise food production facility in Polokwane‚ Limpopo. Enterprise’s factory in Germiston was also affected.

On the same day, the National Consumer Commission ordered Enterprise to remove three products from store shelves. MacDougall said the company had decided to voluntarily recall all products produced in its facilities in Polokwane and Germiston.

Restaurant Association of SA (Rasa) CEO Wendy Alberts said it has approved suppliers on its database. It passes on notices from these suppliers to members to keep them up to date. Rasa members include independent restaurants‚ fast-food outlets‚ coffee shops‚ hospital canteens and mobile restaurants.

Alberts said members increased their health and hygiene standards after Motsoaledi’s announcement on Sunday.

Meanwhile‚ human rights lawyer Richard Spoor has said family members of those who died or those who became ill from listeriosis could bring a class action lawsuit against Tiger Brands. Spoor said only a handful of representatives were needed to start a class action lawsuit. The Consumer Protection Act also allows for a class action lawsuit with other affected parties able to join the suit later.

"You don’t necessarily have to wait … You can get the ball rolling right away." Spoor said ready-to-eat food producers have to meet higher standards. "If you are selling ready-to-eat food the rules are a lot stricter for contamination. Especially with something like meat where there is a real risk of contamination."