The red meat industry is already feeling the effects of a nationwide recall of certain ready-to-eat meat products linked to the listeriosis outbreak that has led to the deaths of 183 people so far.
As products such as polony and viennas have been pulled from retail shelves, meat processing and manufacturing have slowed dramatically and jobs are already being lost, according to the Red Meat Industry Forum.
Although the feedback from the industry is still only preliminary, the manufacturing of processed meats is down by roughly 50%, according to the forum’s general manager, Michelle de Lange.
Retail sales of processed meats, meanwhile, were down by about 80%, said De Lange. This is when comparing last week’s sales to those recorded the week before the March 4 press briefing by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi on the source of the outbreak.
Motsoaledi announced that the government had found the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, which causes listeriosis, at plants belonging to Enterprise Foods and RCL Foods Limited, and initiated a national recall of certain products.
Motsoaledi also revealed that the specific strain of the bacteria — ST6 — which has been identified as the cause of this listeriosis outbreak, was found at Enterprise’s plant in Polokwane. The company, which is owned by Tiger Brands, also has another plant in Germiston, although the ST6 strain was not detected here. Both facilities have been shut down.
But listeriosis fears have not been confined to Enterprise and RCL Foods products.
“Clearly, the Listeria announcement has had an effect on sales of cooked meat products,” said David North, group executive for strategy and corporate affairs at Pick n Pay. “Since the announcement, customers have been seeking reassurance that the food they eat is safe.”
North said the brands affected by the recall “will need to work very hard to rebuild confidence in their products and their ability to make sure the problems cannot arise again”.
According to De Lange, smaller manufacturers have been hardest hit and have already begun retrenching staff. There are about 200 processing facilities across the country, though not all are as large as Enterprise’s or RCL Foods’ plants, she said.
“It is estimated that roughly 20% of jobs are being laid off in the manufacturing sector as a result,” said De Lange. “The impact is severe.”
If monthly overheads cannot be recovered, she said, this could lead to greater financial losses and possibly even company closures.
“The entire industry is affected in a similar way, with a knock-on effect to suppliers of services, spices, packaging and meat,” said De Lange, adding that job losses in the downstream and upstream value chains were also already evident.
Pork, which is used in manufacturing processed meat products, has been particularly hard hit because of the public confusion, she noted. Pig prices have fallen substantially — up to 25%, according to some reports.
“It is predicted that the worst is still to come when piggeries start finding it difficult to market their slaughter stock destined for the processing sector,” De Lange continued.
The listeriosis outbreak has thrown a light on numerous gaps in food safety controls and regulations. Several departments and spheres of government share jurisdiction over these issues — including the departments of health, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and trade and industry.
Efforts by the health department to overhaul a number of regulations under the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act have been delayed.
There are no regulated limits for the presence of Listeria in ready-to-eat products and when it comes to food safety standards, the industry essentially regulates itself.
Despite work having begun in 2015, the regulation governing microbiological standards for foodstuffs, which would control for Listeria — regulation 692 — has not been completed, according to Penny Campbell, director for food control at the department of health, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian at Motsoaledi’s press briefing.
With only one technical expert available, the department wanted to prioritise regulation 962, which governs general hygiene requirements for food premises and the transport of food, to set a minimum basic standard for conditions.
She said the updated hygiene regulations are almost complete and, once they are published, the work on microbiological standards will begin.
Experts have also questioned why modern food safety approaches are not mandatory in South Africa, notably Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based systems (HACCP). According to the health department, regulation 908 allows for certain sectors to be listed for mandatory HACCP implementation, but a food industry body needs to apply for it. The regulations must be amended to make the system mandatory, it said, which it intends to do.
Last week in Parliament, the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) said its attempts to regulate processed meat products in 2014 had run aground because of disagreements with the industry over costs.
De Lange said this matter related to a long-standing debate on regulating the meat processing industry using the promulgated South African National Standard for processed meat products — SANS885. After years of engagement, the SANS885 was gazetted as a voluntary standard in the industry, she said.
A second stage commenced involving discussions with the NRCS, which must police an industry once a national standard is made compulsory. But given the mandate of the NRCS, which dictates that products need to be collected at source and cannot be collected at the retailer, the cost of the NRCS effectively policing the industry using SANS885 was found to be prohibitive, she said.
Nevertheless, De Lange said, for food suppliers and producers to meet the requirements of their trading partners and export markets, they have to implement stringent hygiene and sanitisation programmes, as well as conduct regular product testing, both internally and by independent external testing facilities.