The recent listeriosis outbreak, which has now reportedly claimed 200 lives, has been a major eye-opener for South Africans. It has resulted in consumers not just questioning food safety standards, but insisting on a zero-tolerance approach to bacterial contamination and exposure.
But is zero bacterial exposure realistic?
"No," said Gareth Lloyd-Jones, chief commercial officer at Ecowize — a hygiene and sanitation services company in the food and other industries.
"Ultimately, we live in an environment where we are constantly exposed to bacteria," said Lloyd-Jones. But South African food producers can get as close to zero as practically possible. And this starts by clarifying what zero means in this context.
"To guarantee that there is clarity and, of course, compliance within the industry, it should be clear whether it (zero) means absolutely no trace of harmful bacteria within a facility. Alternatively, it may mean zero contaminants found on actual food products, or that a set range of certain bacteria, which are not harmful in small amounts, is acceptable."
Regardless, South Africa needs to focus on setting strict and transparent guidelines to achieve the optimum result.
Already, there are a number of food-safety management standards applied by South African food companies. However, unlike in many other countries, these standards are not legally required or enforced in South Africa, pointed out food microbiology and safety specialist Dr Lucia Anelich.
"With this in mind, there is an urgent need for enforceable regulations to be introduced which address all pathogens, beyond those currently in place for salmonella and E. coli," said Lloyd-Jones.
"Countries which have implemented such legislation and industry governance have seen a massive reduction in the number and severity of outbreaks," he added.
Further, the introduction of a designated food control or food safety agency would also go a long way towards ensuring a safer environment in which food is produced, he suggested.
Legislation will likely be costly, Lloyd-Jones noted, as it would require many of the country's food producers to make a massive investment of time and resources relating to their hygiene, maintenance and engineering practices.
The producers of lower-cost food products – like many of the ready-to-eat cold meats – would find this process a lot more difficult and would need much longer to fully implement the required changes.
"I have noticed that many companies have already started this process and are investing millions. However, these are producers of more premium products. The producers of lower-cost food products — like many of the ready-to-eat cold meats — would find this process a lot more difficult and would need much longer to fully implement the required changes."
The adoption of a designated food safety agency would also require funding, which would likely be gathered through some kind of tax, be it from the food industry or through general tax collection — ultimately impacting the consumer.
"The increased cost of more stringent and advanced hygiene and food safety practices, and additional taxes, will likely result in products being sold at higher prices as this cost is passed on to retailers and ultimately to consumers," he observed.
The bottom line is that an investment needs to be made to reduce the risk of another dreadful outbreak.
"The bottom line is that an investment needs to be made to reduce the risk of another dreadful outbreak. While consumers demand a zero-tolerance approach be implemented, as they rightfully deserve to trust that the food they consume is safe, investment in this safety comes at a cost — for the public sector, the national food industry, local retailers, and the end consumer," Lloyd-Jones concluded.