The tale of a foodborne disease which killed hundreds, lost businesses money and caused panic which no one wants to take responsibility for.
December 25, 2017, was the worst Christmas for the Warmback family.
The festivities began two days before with the arrival of Keith and Glenda Warmback’s children from the US. There was food and celebration as the couple saw their one-year-old granddaughter for the first time.
“That evening, we went out and my wife had a chicken salad [from one of the fast food restaurants]. The following day my wife Glenda started having a tummy ache. She went to lie down for a while. She fell asleep and I woke her up around 5PM and she said she couldn’t get out of bed because she wasn’t feeling well and had a running tummy,” says Keith.
Keith says he was woken up by barking dogs, in their room where Glenda was asleep, at about midnight.
“I went to see what was going on and I found Glenda on the floor. She said she thought she had a stroke,” he recalls.
He bundled her up and rushed her to the nearest private hospital.
“The staff was disastrous… They were disinterested in my wife’s condition and three others who were there with similar symptoms,” says Keith.
According to Keith, it was just the beginning of a series of mistakes. Eventually, Glenda’s lungs collapsed and she died at 2AM on Christmas day. She was 61 years old; they had been married for 41 of those.
“The painful thing is the incompetence at the hospital,” says Keith.
Doctors sited natural causes as a cause of death. The problem is, just 20 days before, the health minister had announced a foodborne outbreak called listeriosis. According to Keith, Glenda had all the symptoms and blood tests indicated she had it but she was never treated for it.
At the time of going to press, Glenda was one of 183 South Africans who had died from this disease since January 2017; 978 had been infected. It is the world’s worst outbreak of listeriosis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Listeriosis is the name of a disease that people develop when they eat food that is contaminated with the bacterium called listeria,” says Dr Juno Thomas, head of the Centre for Enteric Diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
According to Thomas, this bacterium is found worldwide. It can be in soil, water and even faeces in many animals.
“Once in the environment, it is very difficult to get rid of because it attaches to things very easily. Once it attaches itself in an environment, it produces a layer of a sticky sugary slime that sticks onto the surfaces and makes it difficult to remove and resistant to disinfectants,” says Thomas.
According to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, South African hospitals saw and treated an average of 60 to 80 patients affected by listeria between 2013 and 2016 with no problems.
Then, in July last year, doctors started seeing more cases of newborn babies born with listeria.
It was a cause for concern. They informed the NICD. A search, led by Thomas, began. On November 29, they found that at the time, 557 people had been infected.
“A team from the NIDC interviewed 109 patients to obtain details about foods they had eaten in the month before falling ill. Eighty five percent of the people reported eating ready-to-eat (RTE) processed meat products, of which polony was the most common, followed by viennas/sausages and then other ‘cold meats’,” says Motsoaledi.
Sixty percent of cases were reported in Gauteng, 13% in the Western Cape and 7% in KwaZulu-Natal.
“We think it affected Gauteng the most because of consumer behavior. Things like sausages, polony and viennas are staple street and household foods in Gauteng because they are affordable and quick to prepare. The economy of Gauteng also plays a factor. There are many more people who can afford to buy these items than other provinces,” says Thomas.
Even armed with this information, the source of the outbreak remained unknown.
“When you have an outbreak like this you have no idea where it comes from. We also had not seen many cases of listeriosis in the country, meaning it wasn’t a big health priority compared to all the other issues we have to deal with. For example, we saw 30,000 cases of malaria last year, rabies is a big concern, TB and many others were more severe,” says Thomas.
With hard work and vigilance, the outbreak was traced from Soweto.
Nine crèche kids under the age of five got ill and were admitted to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Tests revealed that they had been infected. A team went to the crèche the very day and found kids had eaten polony manufactured by Enterprise Foods, owned by Tiger Brands.
“We then visited the Enterprise Foods factory in Polokwane that makes this brand. We took over 28 samples and they tested positive for the outbreak strain. The conclusion from this is that the source of the present outbreak can be confirmed to be the Enterprise Food production facility in Polokwane,” she says.
On Sunday March 4, Motsoaledi ordered a safety recall of all products from Tiger Brands.
After Motsoaledi’s announcement, Tiger Brands shares fell more than 10% when the market opened on Monday.
“It is devastating for me that our business is linked to this outbreak… we detected low levels of listeria in our products on the 14th of February. We took immediate precautionary measures which included immediately halting production of the affected product, quarantining all affected product within our distribution center and withdrawing all affected products manufactured on that day,” says Tiger Brand CEO Lawrence MacDougall at a press briefing the next day.
MacDougall, however, controversially denied any responsibility for the deaths.
“There is no direct link with the deaths to our products that we are aware of at this point. Nothing… All of our tests and results indicate that we kept a very high standard of quality protocols within those sites. The expectations going forward is that those standards are significantly increased if there is going to be a zero detection of listeria going forward,” he says.
Motsoaledi argues that there is proof the ST6 strain was found at their facilities.
“The fact remains that we have had an outbreak of listeria, we informed them [Tiger Brands], in terms of fair administrative justice, that we got the results and we were going public with them. I don’t think they did enough to make sure their produce is safe for consumption by the public. I believe the best way is for this to be a civil case rather than a government case,” says Motsoaledi.
Renowned corruption buster and private forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan agrees. He is filing criminal charges against the board of Tiger Brands and has called upon them to step aside pending the outcome of the investigations.
O’Sullivan has teamed up with human rights lawyer Richard Spoor to bring charges.
“What is particularly shocking is that Tiger Brands, in its most recent annual report, placed product quality as number nine on the list of risks facing the company, when it should have been be at number one. We cannot think of a greater risk to the sustainability of any food company, than that of killing off your customers through recklessness or gross negligence. We are 100% certain that it will rank top of the list in next year’s annual report.”
What O’Sullivan finds completely unacceptable is that Tiger Brands is still in denial.
“On the one hand they close and deep-clean all the affected facilities, on the other hand they deny culpability and say they will meet each civil claim on its own merits, thereby indicating they will make it a long-haul for the litigants,” he says.
Gareth Lloyd-Jones, Chief Commercial Officer at hygiene and sanitation service provider Ecowize, however says government is to blame. He argues there should be a surveillance system that protects consumers.
“This type of rigorous investigation has been going on for the past couple of months, which is admirable, relevant and necessary and should have been part of a more robust routine surveillance and monitoring process in terms of food safety and legislation requirements,” he says.
According to retail analyst Syd Vianello, this can tarnish a brand that has spent decades trying to live up to high standards.
“How long is it going to take [Enterprise Foods] to convince consumers that the Enterprise brand is good for purchase again? We are talking about the value of the brand and the protection of the brand equity, insurance won’t even cover you for those kinds of losses. These can carry on for a very long time,” he says.
There is also a rub-off effect.
Ronald Dube, a manager at a supermarket in Johannesburg, says people have been returning all cold meats regardless of brand.
“People are afraid and have been returning all sorts of meat. We have also noted that sales of processed foods have gone down, no matter the brand,” he says.
Many people have also thrown away their cold meats but, according to Dr Johan Schoonraad, waste expert and group tactical specialist at EnviroServ Waste Management, there are only two options for disposing of listeria infected food waste – incineration or treatment and landfill disposal.
“The scale of the problem is too big for the incineration industry to deal with in any sort of reasonable timeframe, which leaves waste management companies with the option to do treatment and disposal to landfill,” he says.
Schoonraad says treatment can take many routes. You could sterilize the food waste, heating it and ensuring the material internally gets to 100 degrees which would kill the bacteria.
“If this was done, we could then landfill it without further treatment being required before disposal,” he says.
The other option is to chemically treat it prior to disposal.
According to Schoonraad, the problem is municipal landfills often have poor access control. The risk here, he says, is that the informal sector could enter and scavenge food material, which is then sold or eaten and could spread the disease.
“However, licensed hazardous waste sites have strict access control with no scavenging allowed at these facilities,” he says.
Nevertheless, South Africa remains in fear of this deadly disease.