Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The South African Poultry Association (SAPA), which represents producers, has expressed concern about imported chicken paste which is used in processed meats, including polonies.

In the wake of the listeriosis outbreak, the association said reports about corruption and the evasion of food safety checks in the Brazilian meat and poultry industries were of major concern.

Brazilian police are said to be investigating top executives at that country’s major poultry exporter, BRF, following allegations of fraud meant to facilitate the evading of food safety checks.

BRF is one of the biggest poultry exporters in the world. The company exports mechanically deboned meat (MDM). MDM is a paste used in processed meats, including polonies, viennas and other sausages.

At the weekend, the poultry association called on the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to determine whether BRF is a supplier of mechanically deboned meat to SA and, if so, how many tonnes are imported.

"We would also like the department to establish from the Brazilian authorities whether the food safety tests that BRF is alleged to have evaded included tests for listeria. Given the serious outbreak of listeriosis in South Africa, and the deaths of 180 people, we hope this is something the department will investigate speedily," the association said.

It also said the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had been slow in implementing a listeria test protocol for imported MDM.

"We understand that this was only concluded with meat importers last week. When it is implemented, it will be a step forward in protecting South African consumers, but it should have happened long ago.

"The South African poultry industry has had a self-funded test protocol for listeria in place for years, and the department has unfettered 24h/day access to our abattoirs. It is time that imported meat and poultry products are held to the same standards as locally produced products. We have also been working with [the department] to put in place the most effective measures to ensure consumer safety, the most recent being the implementation of the Independent Meat Inspection scheme as well as reviewing the testing protocols for meat."

The association said it was a matter of concern that while many countries are blocking processed meat products from SA, the country accepts untested imported mechanically deboned meat, "and we now find that food-safety measures in the exporting country may have been circumvented".

"We hope the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will be able to tell South African consumers the steps they are taking to protect them against unsafe food," the association said.

Department spokeswoman Bomikazi Molapo said the department had written to the chief veterinary officer and the Brazilian embassy in South Africa for an official report regarding BRF.

"We are awaiting the report and have emphasised the urgency of this matter with the Brazilian authority. We can only act once we have received an official report from the Brazillian authority," said Molapo.

The department had implemented mandatory listeria testing on imported meat immediately when there were signs pointing to a possibility that processed meat could be involved in the listeria outbreak.

"[The department] has been conducting listeria testing on suspect imported products that test positive for other microorganisms and rejecting those consignments," Molapo said.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced last week that polony and products from an Enterprise Foods factory in Polokwane‚ Limpopo‚ had been found to have been the source of the world’s largest outbreak of listeriosis. He said listeria had been traced to another Enterprise facility in Germiston on the East Rand, and a Rainbow chicken facility in the Free State, but further tests were needed. The outbreak led to at least 180 deaths and infected close to 1‚000 people.

Tiger Brands, on behalf of its division Enterprise Foods, committed to recalling all products that had been linked with the listeriosis outbreak, but said it would also be conducting its own tests.