Listeria monocytogenes cultures are seen in a lab at The National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg. The institute is currently dealing with Listeria The institute is dealing with the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa. Picture: ALON SKUY
Listeria monocytogenes cultures are seen in a lab at The National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg. The institute is currently dealing with Listeria The institute is dealing with the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa. Picture: ALON SKUY

In 2014, McDonalds invited the Sunday Times into its burger production facility in City Deep.

The fast food chain had fared badly in a Food Weekly burger taste test. Someone had said its burger tasted artificial. The company wanted to show us how safe and above board their food production methods were.

As much as we love McDonalds horror stories, the factory was clinically clean. No pink, white or other slime to be seen, nothing visibly dodgy, no three-headed cows.

The meat was sourced next door at Karan Beef and the procession line was pristine. All certificates were in order.

I learnt that day, that one of the reasons McDonalds has to be strict about what they produce is consistency. Their food must taste the same wherever you go in the world. More importantly, it is to be safe. They have to avoid law suits at all costs, so people cannot get ill from eating bad food.

We know how damaging law suits can be, don’t we Tiger Brands?
(Whether McDonalds is a healthy option is another story, but you can choose how often to put it into your mouth.)

At that facility, I got some insight into something else.

Finlar Fine Foods supplied both Woolworths and Country Fair with “formed” chicken burgers and crumbed chicken fillet burgers.

The issue is not that Woolworths used the facility ... why wouldn’t it? It was top notch and everything was in order.

The issue is perception and pricing of a Woolies chicken burger, versus a Country Fair burger and a McDonalds Cajun Chicken Deluxe.

Yes, as Woolies said in its many statements about listeria this week, their “raw materials and high standards” are essentially what we pay for.

Last week, they sent us audit reports from the Enterprise factory where their viennas are packed and cold meats are sliced.

Although all seemed well, they recalled their products produced at Enterprise anyway.

We know that Woolies products went onto the production line first in the morning, after cleaning. That they used animal products from sincere farmers. Their independent audit said their section was clean. But the other products were contaminated at packaging level, so there was a chance of contamination.

As consumers, we pay for the good stuff to be handled better, but somewhere along the line someone fails them, and they fail us.

It is wrong on many levels. Cost is one.

Another of those levels is why other food companies don’t use the same controls and standards across the board.

We know the answer, it would undoubtedly mean paying more, in a country where food security is a problem.

It simply should not happen this way.

Interviewing the experts this week, what made me feel sick to my stomach was knowing that this preventable illness permeated the bloodstreams of unborn babies, via their expectant mothers who were feeding themselves what they could afford. The most ill and vulnerable got sick, and many died. It attacked the gut, and the brain in a most painful way.

Why is food not taken seriously in South Africa?

Our legislation has been proven to fall short of our basic safety needs.

As the experts said, the guidelines are not there and it is really up to the producers to do their best.

What we do know now, is that their best is not good enough — sometimes even when you pay for it.

Nor is there loyalty to the vast number of mouths that cheaper food goes in to ever day, because they cannot afford better.

Profits from mass selling are high though, R10.4 billion for Tiger Brands last year. What was the cost of better procedure?

I don’t know in rands, but in lives, it was 183 at last count.

And at the end of the day, who suffers?

The kota sellers who are expected to use beef fillet at twenty times the cost of cheaper meat products. Maybe the children who usually buy them en route to school. The workforce of Enterprise in Polokwane and Germiston.

It is a multi-billion rand industry and it has failed babies, children and the majority of the South African public. 

Some of our retailers also failed us.

Even those who claim to be the most ethical with the biggest promises, for which they make a dent in the middle-class overdraft.

They failed us.
We deserve better.
Big food producers, you all make me sick.