Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In a recent media statement, the government enumerated a long list of actions taken to manage the listeriosis outbreak, which, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), is the biggest outbreak ever seen anywhere in the world.

In every crisis situation it is important that lessons are learned; when it is a matter of life or death, it is critical. It is commendable that the government has taken steps such as strengthening the National Health Laboratory Service’s food-testing capacity; and making a concerted effort to keep the public, especially the vulnerable groups, informed with accurate health information about the disease and its prevention.

Steps have also been taken to prevent the export of any contaminated meats to SA’s trading partners abroad, including the rescinding by the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries of the export certification of any products implicated in the outbreak.

However, one critical question remains: is the inspection regime for meat imports entering South African ports, much of it from countries with questionable health standards, equally stringent and thorough, to protect our citizens with equal vigour?

Now more than ever before, South African consumers must be concerned about the countries from which SA imports meat, and we need to know, without any ambiguity, how effective our health-control measures and inspection procedures actually are.

‘White slime’

Last month, the EU suspended meat imports, mainly poultry, from 20 Brazilian establishments due to what it called "deficiencies detected in the Brazilian control systems". In the interests of public health, SA should be doing the same.

There are only a few local facilities that produce the mechanically deboned meat used to make processed meats, including polony. Many brands of processed meat produced here contain "white slime", as mechanically deboned meat is sometimes called, which is imported in massive quantities from Brazil.

To say there are problems with Brazil’s meat-inspection regime is an understatement. At various times during the past year dozens of countries have banned meat imports from Brazil because of food-safety concerns

To say there are problems with Brazil’s meat-inspection regime is an understatement. At various times during the past year dozens of countries have banned meat imports from Brazil because of food-safety concerns.

Brazil’s meat-inspection scandal made global headlines when it was revealed that major meat producers and exporters were bribing inspectors. The fact that the CEO of one of Brazil’s largest meat producers was arrested and might face jail time, speaks volumes and should be cause for concern.

It was a full year after the listeriosis outbreak that SA finally imposed extra test requirements on imported meat products, but these intensified inspections by the Department of Health were conducted only for a brief period, until the department named a polony factory in Polokwane as the source of the outbreak.

Whether that facility used Brazilian "white slime" in its production process has not been confirmed or denied.

Inspection of incoming meat now reverts to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, whose routine function this is.

Two red flags go up immediately.

First, the funds and resources required to undertake listeria inspections of every incoming meat consignment must be made available by the importers, as is the case in the EU. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries should not be responsible for a job that is clearly the responsibility of the importers. Does the department even have the funds and resources to undertake listeria inspections of every incoming meat consignment?

Secondly, and more important, inspections of Brazilian imports, in particular, are essential because of the lax health regime in that country. These concerns are real, because South African lives are at stake.

Brazil has no requirement in its health and food safety regimes to report listeria. Listeriosis is not a notifiable disease there as it is in most developed countries, but Brazil has a long and well-documented history of unacceptable levels of listeria being present in its processed meat, including meat for export.

Tainted samples

To address this issue, researchers from Brazil’s internationally renowned Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro collected food samples from 1990 to 2012 from 12 Brazilian states and examined them for bacteria. Listeria was present in nearly 6,000 of these samples.

The study notes that the meat producers who sent these samples "didn’t inform if they had established a standard microbiological acceptability of the product or the presence or number of bacterial masses per unit area or batch. There was no information about where the products came from … or if they would be exported".

In other words, SA imports the bulk of its mechanically deboned meat for processed meats from a country whose meat-inspection system is suspect, and where there is no requirement to report listeria.

Brazil is now the major supplier of imported chicken to SA. If consumers are to be protected, we must have adequate screening of Brazilian chicken imports, including the 200,000 tonnes of mechanically deboned meat imported every year, most of it from Brazil.

To date, more than 200 South Africans have paid with their lives for this food-safety scandal. And while the current outbreak of listeriosis has slowed, this issue has to be addressed to prevent any recurrence.

The Brazilian producers must be inspected for health and safety compliance before being allowed to export meat products, including chicken, to SA. It is imperative that every consignment imported into this country be inspected by health authorities, and the costs carried by the importers, not the taxpayer.

What this also highlights is that there is an enormous opportunity to establish more meat-deboning facilities on home turf so SA increases chicken production, creates jobs, and protects its food security and the lives of consumers.

• Baird is the founder of FairPlay.