06/03/2018 05:40 SAST | Updated 06/03/2018 05:40 SAST

Department Of Health Blames Food Companies For Delaying Listeriosis Probe

The department says the source of listeriosis could have been found sooner, but food companies refused to cooperate.

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This is a transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of a Listeria sp bacterium in a tissue sample, 2002. Listeria monocytogenes is the infectious agent responsible for the food borne illness listeriosis.

Food companies are being blamed by the department of health for delaying their investigation into the source of the listeriosis outbreak, Business Day reported.

The source of the outbreak, which killed 180 people since January, was traced back to Enterprise Foods polony and Rainbow Chicken sausage. Tiger Brands, which owns the businesses, has recalled the products. Tiger Brands has also reportedly recalled products not identified by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NCID), although it says it is still waiting for the outcome of its own tests.

According to Business Day, department of health spokesman Popo Maja said that food companies had impeded the NCID's investigation.

"If they had cooperated we would have long ago discovered the source," he reportedly said. Maja told Business Day that food companies were asked to send samples to the NCID for testing, and that they told the department that there was nothing forcing them to do so.

Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall reportedly said, "I'm not refuting what they are saying. We have not seen that information." He reportedly said the company had quarantined some foods after their own tests identified listeria in certain products on February 14.

However, Tiger Brands maintains there is no evidence that this strain was the one which killed 180 people. According to TimesLive, MacDougall said on Monday that the National Consumer Commission had ordered Enterprise to remove three products from the shelves but the company had decided to be extra vigilant and remove everything produced in its facilities produced in Germiston and Polokwane.

Tests at Enterprise for listeria initially came back negative, he said, but "amplified testing" later showed low levels of listeria in one product.

Tiger Brands has been hit hard by the news, and its share price fell 12.87% on Monday, according to Business Day. But experts say the brand can bounce back if it acts strategically.

Marketing expert Groovin Nchabeleng told HuffPost:

"These are well established brands that have been running for years – for them to disappear from the market as a result of this outbreak is not possible, especially if they urgently conduct necessary processes to regain the confidence of consumers," Nchabeleng said.

No job losses at Tiger Brands are expected for now, according to Fin24.

Dawie Maree, head of marketing and information at FNB Business Agriculture reportedly said, At a manufacturing plant most of the jobs are probably permanent and the company should have business contingency plans. In the short term, workers might not go to work, but will probably still receive pay. Companies usually also have insurance for this kind of outbreak," he said.

"However, if they end up having to close the factory all together, that will have an impact. I am not a food scientist, but I don't think this will end up happening. They will probably sterilise the processing facility, keep it under observation, slowly start production again and monitor it."

Meanwhile, the ANC has called for further investigations. According to Eyewitness News, the party's Pule Mabe says the South African Bureau of Standards should investigate whether there are any problems with the packaging material at food production plants.