Food is a source of life but it can also be the cause of death due to foodborne diseases. The listeriosis outbreak which occurred in 2017-18 in South Africa opened our eyes to the devastating effects of contaminated food, when more than 200 people died from enjoying a presumably good slice of their favourite polony.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one out of 10 people fall ill after consuming contaminated food. In the world rankings, Africa has the highest number of food poisoning cases reported. The 2015 health study further states that each year more than 92 million people fall ill after consuming contaminated foods and over 137 000 have died because of food poisoning.
The access to safe and affordable food is an eminent and fundamental right to be enjoyed by everyone regardless of origin, class or stature. As consumers, we expect that our food does not carry potential risks and diseases that are harmful to our health.
There are several regulatory systems that are carried by our national departments and that are responsible for food legislation.
Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: the DAFF regulates the quality of agriculture and animal products to ensure that it is safe for consumption.
National Department of Health: this department assures that all foodstuffs are safe for human consumption in terms of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectant Act of 1972 (FCD Act). The Act also addresses the manufacture, labelling and trade of foodstuffs.
National Health Act of 2003: this act deals with matters of hygiene when working with food on land, while the International Health Regulations Act of 1974 assures that aircraft and vessels adhere to standard hygiene requirements.
South African Bureau of Standards: SABS works under the authority of the Department of Trade and Industry. SABS focuses on frozen and canned products to ensure that they follow the Standard Act of 1993 guidelines and regulatory measures.
During the investigations of the listeria outbreak, it was found that high levels of bacteria were traced to a Polokwane meat-processing factory owned by Tiger Brands. Health Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi admitted that there were flaws in the regulatory system.
There is a lack of skilled workers as well as a shortage of environmental health practitioners (EHPs) to reinforce these regulatory systems and food legislation. This has led the department to train 900 environmental health practitioners from every district. When done with training, these EHPs will carry out factory inspections to source out listeria and other pathogens.
Studies and Solutions
In November last year, Tiger Brands in partnership with the University of Stellenbosch established the Centre for Food Safety.
The centre is an applied food science research consortium that will conduct food science and food safety research to help the government ensure that food safety regulations are based on thorough research, expert opinions and proper evidence.
Tiger Brands has since reopened its factories which have been endorsed with a clean bill of health by Capricorn Municipality’s Environmental Health Department.
Good Food Practices
During the listeria ordeal safety campaigns to teach people how to practice good hygiene when working with food were put on the spotlight.
DAFF in partnership with AgriSeta provided the following basic food safety guidelines to avoid food contamination:
Waste disposal: discard of any materials that are not necessary or that will not be used.
Storage containers: to reduce cross-contamination, store goods correctly and separately.
Working areas: make sure to work on clean surfaces.
Open wounds: cover wounds immediately and wear an additional pair of disposable gloves.
Hand washing: wash hands thoroughly with soap and running water.
Since the outbreak, the Department of Health has referred the industry to the CODEX standard that states that ready-to-eat products must have zero listeria detection when they leave factories as well as at the point of sale. The industry has also promised to comply with the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocol, which is a systematic preventive approach to food safety. The process assesses biological, chemical and physical hazards during the production processes which can cause the finished product to be unsafe and designs measures to reduce these risks to a safe level.