Picture: ALON SKUY
Picture: ALON SKUY

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has rubbished the DA’s statement that the source of SA’s devastating listeriosis outbreak has yet to be found.

"We are particularly worried about the confusion that emanated from statements made at the meeting called by the Parliamentary portfolio committee on agriculture on March 28‚" the institute said in a statement. "The statements the Minister of Health has made [about the outbreak source] have emanated from epidemiologic and scientific investigations conducted by the NICD: the implication that the NICD has misled the minister and the public is rejected."

It added a kicker in the form of just-in lab results: "Seven additional samples — produced at the Enterprise Polokwane production facility and bought at the Enterprise Germiston factory shop on February 15 — have tested positive for the outbreak strain. This means that the outbreak strain has been found inside the ready-to-eat (RTE) processed meat products manufactured at Enterprise Foods’ Polokwane production facility‚ dispelling claims made to the contrary."

According to latest figures released by the NICD‚ 982 people have contracted listeriosis‚ and 189 have died. The body strongly condemned the DA’s claim that the government had opted to "prematurely scapegoat" Enterprise and RCL Foods (Rainbow) because it lacked proper emergency plans to contain the outbreak.

"This evidence has been amply provided by the NICD. In outbreaks of this nature‚ the NICD is obligated by the International Health Regulations to report findings through the National Department of Health to the World Health Organisation (WHO)‚ and cannot afford to‚ and does not‚ mislead."

For those who "still have lingering doubts"‚ the NICD gave a detailed scientific account of why it was absolutely sure the Tiger Brands Enterprise factory in Polokwane was the source of the outbreak.

In short‚ thanks to a process called whole genome sequencing (WGS) — as scientifically solid as confirming paternity via DNA testing — the exact strain of Listeria monocytogenes — ST6 — has been identified in 92% of those who contracted listeriosis‚ confirming it as the outbreak strain.

The same strain was found in one of the Sowetan children who fell ill; in three samples of polony found in the crèche fridge; in Enterprise’s Polokwane plant; and in products sold in the company’s own factory shop.

"Of great concern is the fact that the outbreak strain was found in the post-cooking processing environment [in Enterprise’s Polokwane plant] and also on the final polony products‚" the NICD said.

The post-cooking section of a factory making RTE foods is an extremely high-risk area for Listeria contamination‚ given how polony is made: taw ingredients are mixed into an emulsion; the polony emulsion is poured into casings (the plastic wrapping) and clipped at either end; the polony is cooked in its casing‚ then cooled.

"Any Listeria that is present in the raw ingredients or emulsion should be killed during the cooking process. However‚ any found beyond the cooking stage poses the danger of contaminating the polony and causing disease‚ because polony is not usually cooked again before it is eaten."

Twenty-three laboratory-confirmed cases have been reported since the March 4 announcement by the Health Minister that the Enterprise Polokwane plant was the source of the outbreak‚ and the recall of several products. Of the 23 cases‚ 17 people have been interviewed; 10 said they had eaten the implicated food products and two had direct contact with recalled food products.

The death rate in the outbreak — the world’s worst — is currently 28%, which is considered very high.

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