Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Buying Death in a Package; Listeria Outbreak in South Africa

On March 6 — during the Food Security and Agriculture Core Course in South Africa attended by 20 participants from nine African countries — we were quite shocked by the news on the front page of a popular South African newspaper: more than 1,000 people had become ill and 180 died (78 of the 180 were infants) in the largest recorded Listeria (Listeria monocytogenes ST6) outbreak. 

The source of this outbreak has been linked to processed meat products from one of the largest food companies in South Africa (Tiger Brands); the company has recalled three meat products (polony, russians and viennas) so far. The main concern is that the information regarding the outbreak and the measures to be taken will not reach everyone, especially in rural areas. There is also a concern that contaminated food could find its way to open dumpsites where poor people can pick up and eat these contaminated foods and become sick. Five countries (Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi and Uganda) have announced that they are banning processed meat from South Africa.

Listeriosis is caused by eating contaminated foods, especially fresh produce, meats, and dairy products, with Listeria monocytogenes. Listeria can be killed if the contaminated food has been properly cooked at 70 degrees Celsius. People most susceptible to listeriosis are pregnant women, older people (65 years or older) and people with weakened immune systems. During pregnancy, Listeria can pass from mother to child through the placenta. Symptoms of listeriosis are fatigue, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, muscle aches, etc. Listeria can be diagnosed using bacterial culture from body tissue, including blood, spinal fluid or the placenta. Antibiotics can treat listeriosis.

What should the government of South Africa do to prevent this from happening again in the future? How can the government of South Africa prevent the spread of listeriosis, especially among rural consumers?

This outbreak will have negative impact on food security in South Africa as thousands of tons of contaminated food are being dumped. Therefore, it is important to consider including a food safety component in the design and implementation of development programs to reduce the occurrence of these incidents and subsequently improve food security.