Tiger Brands has yet to see any evidence linking its meat products directly to the deaths of 180 people in a virulent listeriosis outbreak, chief executive Lawrence MacDougall said at press conference, on Monday.
“There is no direct link with the deaths to the products, that we are aware of at this point,” MacDougall told journalists.
“We have not received the results from the government yet. We are acting without that information, but we are taking precautions to protect the consumer, even though we don’t have all the results with us at the moment.”
This is despite an announcement on Sunday by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi that government had instituted a recall of a range of ready to eat meat products manufactured at an Enterprise Foods facility in Polokwane.
Tests by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), confirmed the presence of the ST6 strand of the listeria monocytogenes bacteria – which causes listeriosis – at the Polokwane plant. The ST6 strand has been identified as the source of the current outbreak, which has resulted in 948 people falling ill since January 2017. Of these 180 have died, constituting a 27% fatality rate, according to the department of health.
MacDougall said that the government had linked the outbreak to ST6, but not linked the specific strain to the deaths of patients.
The company had done its own tests, which, on 14 February tested positive for low levels of the listeria bacteria. It was still awaiting its own test results to determine the presence of the ST6 strain, MacDougall said.
He also denied allegations that the company’s quality control and monitoring systems had failed.
“We do not support the allegations of a lowered quality regime for testing. All of our tests and results indicate that we kept a very high standard of quality protocols within those sites,” he said.
Enterprise Foods also has another plant at Germiston, where preliminary test by state officials have tested positive for listeria, but the presence of the ST6 strand has not yet been confirmed.
Tiger Brands produces around 60 000 tons of processed meat annually, roughly 25% of the processed market in South Africa.
The company had voluntarily recalled all the ready-to-eat cold meats produced at the Germiston and Polokwane facilities MacDougall said, even though the recall notice had only specified 3 items – namely polony, viennas and frankfurters.
When pressed by journalists over why the company was not taking any responsibility for the deaths of listeriosis victims, or contemplating compensation for families who had lost loved ones he said: “As soon as we have unrefutable evidence of the link, then we will have that discussion, but at the moment we don’t have that.”
The company will however continue to work with the government and regulators, MacDougall said, emphasising that it was deeply concerned about the outbreak and, that any deaths from the outbreak were “tragic”.