Costly: Customers queue to return meat during the listeriosis outbreak. It caused the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs in the pork industry as revenue plummeted. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Costly: Customers queue to return meat during the listeriosis outbreak. It caused the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs in the pork industry as revenue plummeted. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

One doesn’t have to look far to find serious cases of disease or contamination somewhere along the agri value chain. Five people have died in the US in 2018 due to E. coli-infected romaine lettuce, and New Zealand is culling nearly 130,000 cows to stave off a Mycoplasma bovis epidemic.

SA is still suffering the ill-effects of the listeriosis outbreak that has claimed more than 200 lives since the beginning of 2017. This will continue to haunt the industry, especially because it can easily be repeated if there’s a similar slip in food safety and hygiene.

The food chain is integrated in ways that make contagion a real possibility. And that threat is not only of a bacterial nature, but also economic if allied sectors are considered. The agriculture sector faces threats on multiple fronts, demanding constant vigilance to avoid a major crisis.

The rapid and deadly spread of SA’s listeria infection is a harsh reminder of the responsibility that befalls everyone involved in the food value chain. With nearly 18 months passing between discovery and being declared under control by the health minister, it’s also clear that these events take some time to be resolved. And that carries a considerable cost.

For the pork industry, that has been the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs as revenue fell by R800m a month. The knock-on effect, the South African Pork Producers Organisation says, is the loss of R100m a month in allied industries. These are considerable impacts that won’t easily be absorbed or overcome in the short term. Export destinations will have to be assured that processed meat products are safe.

Countries including Zambia‚ Malawi‚ Botswana and Namibia have banned South African processed meat imports, while Rwanda banned dairy‚ meat‚ fruit and vegetables.

Adopting a glass half full attitude to this latest crisis, one could consider the heightened focus on hygiene in agriculture a positive outcome.

Processed meats might be the current focus, but that could shift just as easily and quickly to other sectors that are as prone to bacterial infections and diseases. The dairy sector has not been exempt from health scares of various descriptions over the years. This is not surprising because there are so many threat points throughout the processing of dairy products.

The breadth of the front that the dairy sector has to defend is illustrated in the recent New Zealand decision to cull entire herds. Rather than risk contagion reaching the country’s remaining population of more than 6-million cattle, even healthy cattle in infected herds will be culled over the next two years.

These extreme measures are fully justified given the industry’s contribution to the country’s export earnings. And therein lies an important lesson for the food and agriculture industries: half-measures only prolong the threat.

This applies not only to times of crisis but to the daily, seemingly mundane, operational activities that make up the working lives of people throughout the dairy supply chain. It should be believed that every step and action in the production process is vital to delivering products safe for consumption. And that’s because every step and action in the production process is vital.

Handling food or a process in the production chain demands a special attention to detail because each step could potentially introduce some form of contamination. Specialist equipment helps producers meet hygiene and food safety standards, but machinery can only contribute so much to being compliant.

It is only in the past month that bans have started being lifted and the epidemic declared under control. Everyone will be counting the cost for some time, with far greater vigilance expected towards the possibility of a similar outbreak.

This is something dairy farmer Marius van Dyk of Wesselsbron in the Free State is particularly wary of because he is at risk even if complying with all the regulations. "I had real sympathy for my fellow farmers who operated in the meat industry," he says. "The same kind of crisis or disease could easily break out in my own industry. You must have accreditation to show that your enclosures meet certain safety and hygiene requirements and produce certification that your herd has no diseases or infections. Despite these tests and processes, it is still easy for a herd to be infected by a careless neighbour or by a passing farmer who neglected safety and quality standards."

This is a very real fear that affects not only dairy producers but an entire supply chain that spans basic produce from milk to processed dairy such as cheese, yoghurt, butter and ice cream. Infection or contamination can be introduced at multiple points unless the most stringent hygiene standards are maintained.

The pressure is possibly felt most acutely by farmers such as Van Dyk, who, as the source for the raw material, carries the greatest responsibility. And it’s a pressure they have to absorb besides running complex dairy farm operations.

It’s up to all in the agri industry to develop this culture of caring about every step in the process. Diligence and vigilance come from understanding the impact that even the smallest action or activity has on the ability to deliver the best-quality food to dinner tables.

The processed food industry will need such attention to detail by the bucket load to remedy the damage it’s suffered. This example also carries a stark reminder to all other sectors that standards cannot be allowed to slip if the same value destruction is to be avoided.

Corder is South African country manager for Nilfisk.