The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries suspended meat imports from three Brazilian production facilities last week as a result of ongoing investigations by Brazilian authorities into alleged food safety fraud.
According to Bomikazi Molapo, the department’s spokesperson, Brazilian officials suspended the facilities on March 5, after which South Africa suspended imports from these plants on March 16, when it received an official report from the Brazilian authorities.
The Brazilian meat industry has been reeling after investigations, which began last year, by its ministry of agriculture and livestock as well as the Brazilian federal police into alleged fraud allowing the sale and export of substandard and rancid meat.
A number of firms, including BRF, one of the largest poultry exporters in the world, have been implicated in the scandal. Two of the recently suspended facilities belong to BRF.
This comes against the backdrop of South Africa’s listeriosis outbreak, and questions about whether imported mechanically deboned meat (MDM) — which is a key ingredient in processed meats such as viennas and polony — could be linked to the disease.
Last year South Africa imported roughly 202 000 tonnes of MDM from countries in the European Union, Brazil, the United States and Thailand, according to data from the South African Revenue Service. A large proportion of this MDM comes from Brazil.
But Brazilian officials have strongly denied any link between its meat exports and South Africa’s listeriosis outbreak. Listeriosis is caused by the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. In South Africa’s case, a particular strain known as ST6 has been identified as the cause of the outbreak.
According to Bruno Neves, the head of the trade and investment section at the Brazilian embassy in Pretoria, the most recent suspensions relate to the third phase of Operation Weak Flesh, which was launched into Brazil’s meat industry in March last year.
The operation has reportedly led to the arrest of numerous officials as well as industry players — including that of BRF’s former chief executive.
“This suspension is exclusively related to possible irregularities associated to Salmonella and are not linked to cases of listeriosis,” Neves said, adding that Brazilian authorities have been “completely transparent” about this investigations and its results.
In a recent press statement the embassy noted that Brazilian companies export processed meat to many other countries and no outbreak of the disease could be linked to Brazilian products anywhere else in the world.
“Processed meat is used as a raw material for different products available for consumption and it is therefore subject to industrial processes that should eliminate any risk of contamination by Listeria,” it said.
According to Molapo, South Africa placed some 21 establishments that were implicated in the wider Brazilian meat investigation on suspension at the time the scandal broke, and these remain under suspension.
She said the testing of imported MDM for Listeria has been a standard procedure in cases where it tests positive for other organisms. In February this year, the department intensified the testing of imported MDM for Listeria after the organism was cited as the cause of the outbreak, she said.
Although Listeria has been detected in imported MDM, the sequencing results to determine the subtype are still pending and so far no ST6 has been identified.
So far only the Enterprise processed meat plant in Polokwane, which is owned by food manufacturer Tiger Brands, has been directly identified as contaminated with ST6. Nevertheless, it has also shut down its Germiston plant after high levels of Listeria were identified there, though not ST6.
Other production facilities, notably the Rainbow Chicken Limited (RCL) factory near Sasolburg, are also being investigated and a nationwide recall of both Enterprise’s ready-to-eat meat products, and RCL’s polony products began earlier this month.
In addition, last week Shoprite announced the recall of its Farmer’s Deli red and smoked viennas, after a batch tested positive for Listeria, though it is awaiting further results.
According to Dr Juno Thomas, head of the centre for enteric diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, there is “no evidence” to suggest that South African has directly imported ST6 from anywhere else in the world.
The strain is well documented here and in other parts of the world, she said, and there are entire genome sequence databases publicly available.
“We submitted our ST6 genome sequences and they don’t match exactly any ST6 strains that have been found elsewhere,” she said. The level of genetic testing done in South Africa’s listeriosis outbreak is akin to proving the Listeria isolates are twins, Thomas explained.
“It’s that kind of discriminatory genetic testing that we are doing,” she said.
In addition, Listeria is common in the environment and can persist in a factory for many years, said Thomas. It was just as likely that Listeria could have been brought into a plant by soil contamination or environmental water sources.
In a production facility it would be expected that there would be some Listeria present in raw products or areas where raw products are processed, particularly in the case of chicken, which is known to carry the pathogen, she said.
A company would have to make sure it had all the correct controls in place to minimise the risk of final product contamination, regardless of where the raw meat came from, “so the source is moot at this point”.
She added that ready-to-eat meat products have to be cooked. Cooking is a very effective way to destroy the organism.
“That cooking process will effectively kill off any Listeria that’s there. It doesn’t matter where it came from,” she said.
According to Tiger Brands, it uses about 1000 tonnes of MDM imported from Brazil and Europe each month, with about half of all imported MDM going into processed meat products and the rest going into fresh meat products such as boerewors.
It noted that BRF was not a supplier but did not clarify whether any other plants implicated in the Brazilian investigations were.
This week Tiger Brands announced the suspension of its Clayville abattoir in Midrand, which supplies mainly to the Polokwane and Germiston plants. Costs of the recall and halts in production are expected to be between R337-million and R370-million, the company said, and it is anticipating legal claims through a class action suit of a further R425-million.
The Shoprite group said it does import a limited number of chicken drummets, leg quarters and fillets, as well as whole turkeys, wings and drumsticks from Brazil to augment supplies it sources locally. None of the imports come from BRF plants linked to the Operation Weak Flesh scandal, the group said, but it did not clarify whether it imported from any other firms implicated in the investigations.
Stephen Heath, the chief legal officer at RCL Foods, said that, although it does not import MDM, it does make its own in its facilities “under the same rigorous quality standards as all our products”.
According to Heath, RCL voluntarily targets a level of no colony-forming units — the measure for Listeria growth per 25 grams — in its polony products, in line with international standards.
The recall of its polony products and the shutting down of its Wolwehoek production facility in the Free State are a precautionary measure while government investigations continue, he said.