Irate customers queue to return meat from the Enterprise Factory store in Germiston, East of Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL
Irate customers queue to return meat from the Enterprise Factory store in Germiston, East of Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL

Once again, SA’s health systems have failed us. The listeriosis outbreak announced officially on Sunday is the largest in history.

The historical sequence is that the national Department of Health reported the outbreak on January 8. At that time 61 people were already dead and the infection rate was about 750 people. The department then kicked into gear, trying desperately to find the source of the disease.

In early February the death toll started increasing at a furious rate and, in the seven days until February 15, it doubled.

Finally this weekend the department announced it had discovered a link and ordered Tiger Brands to remove three products — Enterprise polony, frankfurters and viennas — from the shelves. By this stage, 180 deaths had been reported.

The Department of Health, already reeling from the Life Esidimeni crisis, is desperately keen to see the food companies, mainly Tiger Brands but also Rainbow Chicken, take the rap for the outbreak.

No disease is pleasant, but listeriosis must rank as one of the most cruel since it attacks pregnant women, the newborn and the elderly. If caught early, it is treatable with a thumping dose of antibiotics. It is transmitted orally via contaminated food, which is why mass-produced food products are such a risk.

Inevitably, as soon as a crisis like this unfolds, the finger-pointing starts. The Department of Health, already reeling from the Life Esidimeni crisis, is desperately keen to see the food companies, mainly Tiger Brands but also Rainbow Chicken, take the rap for the outbreak. The companies are now in a tight spot; keen to portray themselves as fully co-operating but reluctant to take full responsibility for the outbreak, at least until they see the scientific reports for themselves.

At the hastily called press conference on Monday, Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall repeatedly said no link between Enterprise products and any of the deaths had been demonstrated. That’s quite a risky statement to make. If it turns out that a link is found, the company will find itself doubly blamed for poisoning the public and then denying responsibility until forced to do otherwise.

MacDougall refused to be drawn on what would happen if a link was found, but you can almost guarantee it would be horrible. Civil and criminal charges seem likely to follow, which explains why the companies are understandably eager to distance themselves from admitting any link.

Between the lines, it seems MacDougall is not convinced that the products were in fact the cause. Whether this is self-deception or a shrewd judgment will probably be revealed over time. He said low levels of listeriosis were found at the Polokwane Enterprise plant in January, reaching about 10 colony-forming units, whereas the official danger level is about 100 units. Tiger Brands then increased its testing from once a day to once an hour and all these tests, he said, came back negative. The one thing on which the Department of Health and Tiger Brands agree is that at least some of the environmental swabs (around 40%, says the company) came back positive for listeriosis.

That seems pretty bad and MacDougall claims he is not doubting the decision of the Department of Health, which is why the company is withdrawing not only the three products demanded but all Enterprise products. That’s probably more to do with customer relations and branding concerns than health issues, but it is the correct thing to do. The key for the company now is the long-term viability of the brand. On that score, the stock market judgment has been harsh, pressing the share price down.

For the company to be saying one thing and the Department of Health another is hardly ideal, but it is early days yet and the immediate focus has to be on making sure there are no further deaths. In this area, the company has done the right thing not only by withdrawing the products but by paying for product returns nationally and in the region.

There is no getting away from the sheer horribleness of this outbreak and how sad it must be for the victims. They have our utmost sympathy.

The source of the recent Listeriosis outbreak in the country has been found. Here is what we know so far.