The listeria problem is not, it seems, over yet according to a study by the University of Pretoria. Picture: ALON SKUY
The listeria problem is not, it seems, over yet according to a study by the University of Pretoria. Picture: ALON SKUY

Polony contaminated with listeria is still being sold‚ even though health minister Aaron Motsoaledi says the listeriosis outbreak that killed at least 218 people is over.

The potentially deadly listeria pathogen is still being found in food bought in rural areas and the informal sector.

This is according to a study by the University of Pretoria (UP)‚ one of several of South African universities that form part of the Centre for Excellence in Food Security.

On September 3‚ Motsoaledi said an outbreak that led to 1‚065 confirmed cases was over. Last week‚ Tiger Brands re-opened its Germiston factory‚ which was closed in March along with a Polokwane factory and an abattoir in Clayville after they were found to be the sources of listeria.

Before‚ during and after the outbreak‚ researchers‚ from UP’s Food Safety Research Group collected 344 samples of polony from 77 different brands sold by 20 food outlets. The samples were bought from formal and informal shops in eight of the nine provinces. Their findings‚ presented this week at the International Conference for Food Safety and Security in Pretoria‚ showed that even when the source has been identified and products recalled‚ some contaminated food slipped through the net.

Just before the outbreak was announced‚ in 2016‚ 42 samples were collected and two tested positive. In December 2017‚ eight out of 186 samples were positive.

Most worrying‚ however‚ is that as recently as September‚ four samples out of 116 tested positive. Results from another 10 samples are awaited.

“While the major, implicated products and brands have been removed from retail stores‚ some tainted products remain in the food system‚” said prof Lise Korsten‚ co-director of the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at UP.

“Considering rural areas and the informal sector … it is almost impossible to make sure all contaminated food products have been effectively removed from the whole system,” Korsten said.  “In addition‚ some of our samples show the pathogen present in lesser-known brands that weren’t affected by the recall.”

While the formal sector is “highly regulated”‚ she said‚ the informal sector has a short food-supply chain and the source of products is often not known. Another finding of the study is that the listeria contamination came from the packaging of polony rather than the meat.

Korsten said the battle against food-borne pathogens required warriors from all parts of the supply chain‚ but this is not happening. Many members of the food industry do not want to share information or allow independent environmental or product sampling after the outbreak was announced. 

Lawyers representing the victims of this year’s outbreak hope to approach the Johannesburg High Court by the end of the month to have a class action against Tiger Brands certified.