Laurence MacDougall Freddy Mavunda
Laurence MacDougall Freddy Mavunda

In the hunt for a scapegoat in the listeriosis scare, has government been too hasty by picking on Tiger Brands?

Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi was, at least until earlier this week, of the view that a certain number of deaths per year from listeria poisoning was perfectly normal.

That view is quite a contrast to the Chinese authorities’ approach to the 2008 infant milk formula scandal — which led to the bankruptcies of at least two firms and death sentences for two executives. But, back to Tiger Brands.

While CEO Lawrence MacDougall is adamant that there’s no direct link — at this stage — between its Enterprise meat plant in Polokwane and the deaths of over 180 people from listeriosis, the health department says it has found its source.

"I don’t understand what he means by direct link," Motsoaledi told Business Day TV on Monday.

"We were diagnosing the whole country and we think we have done our work clinically. Perhaps the issue of linking directly to particular patients is a legal matter and I’m sure he was speaking legalistically. But on our side we have formed that link between the outbreak and the Enterprise food facility in Polokwane."

But, says Tiger’s head of communication Nevashnee Naicker, the company has always had testing for listeria, as part of standard safety protocols, and did not detect the bacteria in its meat products "under normal testing protocol".

Then, on February 2, Tiger was visited by a delegation of about 40 health officials, including members of the World Health Organisation, for what Juno Thomas, the head of the Centre for Enteric Diseases at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) called a "swabathon" of the company’s Polokwane Enterprise plant.

Naicker says: "They came to us because there were children who became ill and it was linked to three products" — one of them a Tiger Brands product.

The department says of 300 samples taken, a staggering 30% came back positive with listeria.

Tiger, meanwhile, says it replicated the tests, which came back negative for all its products, but showed "low levels" of environmental listeria present, on February 14.

At that point, it withdrew its "Mielie-Kip" polony from trade and says it began heightened testing — from every day to every hour.

The company then met with the health department on February 23 to share its findings. This is at odds with the department’s assertions that food companies like Tiger had hampered the NICD’s attempts to trace the source of the listeria outbreak. Tiger still doesn’t have access to the test results that the ministry appears to be using — nor does it have clarity that the environmental swabs referenced by the department showed evidence of a particular strain of listeria, known as ST 6.

Naicker says: "There’s no way that Tiger would not take accountability."

Part of the problem may be SA’s standards when it comes to processed meat products. According to regulations, a certain level of listeria is allowed: less than 100 colony forming units (CFUs) according to SANS 885.

Tiger says it detected listeria at less than 10 CFUs.

According to MacDougall, Tiger Brands accounts for about a quarter of the total processed meat products market in SA, producing around 60,000t of product a year.

The problem, says Brand Finance Africa director Jeremy Sampson, is that Tiger’s executives "have got their backs to the wall" now — where any communication is likely to receive a public backlash.

Contrast the feeding frenzy taking place over Tiger Brands to the relative silence over RCL Foods’ role: its Rainbow Chicken polony product is also thought to have been contaminated by the bacterium. Already, the scandal has wiped off R4.4bn from Tiger’s market cap — considerably in excess of the contribution made by its value-added meat products division. Of its R27bn in sales recorded for the year ended September, value-added meat products accounted for R2.24bn in revenue.

But in the absence of any further evidence, Tiger may well be staring down a huge class action lawsuit. According to Werksmans director Neil Kirby: "The provisions of the Consumer Protection Act allow for consumers to organise into class actions ... including for harm or death caused by consumer goods."

However, the trick in apportioning liability "lies in understanding fully the facts surrounding the outbreak, the testing that was done historically and the efficacy of that testing as well as the role of the department of health in its oversight role."