19/03/2018 13:41 SAST | Updated 19/03/2018 13:41 SAST

Listeriosis: We’ve Been Slimed

It's the poorest South Africans who bear the cost and who have little choice but to eat what they've been served.

Felix Dlangamandla/ Foto24/Gallo Images/ Getty Images
Unhappy customers return products at an Enterprise outlet on March 5, 2018 in Germiston, after a recall by Minister if Health Aaron Motsoaledi following a listeriosis outbreak in South Africa.

With the latest health crisis, the water crisis and the imminent increase in VAT, there's never been a better time to give up meat in South Africa. "Mechanically recovered meat", also known as "white slime" (that's an industry term – I'm not just trying to gross you out), appears to be the source of the listeriosis responsible for the deaths of 180 South Africans from 659 cases so far.

Slime is a paste produced by "pureeing or grinding the carcass left after the manual removal of meat from the bones and then forcing the slurry through a sieve under pressure," according to Wikipedia. "This puree includes bone, bone marrow, skin, nerves, blood vessels, and the scraps of meat remaining on the bones." It's not a new thing – in fact, it's been a perennially troublesome source of nasties, including the outbreaks of mad cow disease in the 1980s.

While Tiger Brands deals with the PR fallout of its disastrous press conference, actual South Africans are dealing with the very real fallout from the bacteria in those tasty slime-bombs, Enterprise polony and Vienna sausages. And besides this toxic ectoplasm, there's the small matter of processed meats generally, which the World Health Organisation now classifies, along with things like tobacco and plutonium, as a carcinogen. (It calls red meat a "probable carcinogen", so it's not just the processed kind that's the culprit.)

Processed meats are what many South Africans depend on every day for protein. They shouldn't have to, given the health problems associated with them, but the stuff is cheap. Which brings me to my next point – South Africans can still rely on dried beans, lentils, rice, vegetables, fruit, legumes and pulses, all of which are zero-rated for VAT.

All of these are promoted in national policy as affordable and nutritious sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, as well as being a solution to the incidence of non-communicable diseases caused by high consumption of red and processed meats.

Of course, convenience is part of the reason why South Africans choose polony and Viennas. Making a polony sarmie takes a whole lot less effort than putting together a chickpea curry, and pasta sauce tends to slop out of your lunchbox. No doubt there are more imaginative people than me out there who have alternative meal ideas.

Staying with the slime angle, let's hope the CEO of Tiger Brands takes some responsibility for what they're feeding South Africans.

For those who can afford it and long for the taste of polony and Viennas, the proudly South African manufacturer, Fry's, produces plant-based substitutes, while McCains and Quorn have their own veg nuggets, burgers and schnitzels. Rest assured, it's just as easy to be a vegan junk-food addict as it is to be a carnivorous one.

If you're worried about the phytoestrogens in soy products, don't – there's good evidence they reduce the risk of many cancers, including breast cancer. Even Enterprise itself is upbeat about the health benefits of soy, as evidenced by a cached FAQ page on their website (the live page has a panicky product recall message on it).

Turns out Enterprise polony and Viennas contain some soy, so at least there's something worth eating in all that slime. "Recent studies in the USA indicate that consumption of soy protein is effective in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease", according to the page.

Completing the trifecta of benefits of eliminating slime and other animal products from our diets (besides the boring old ethical ones), we can reduce our collective water footprint by 14 – 21 percent. Sure, it doesn't save Capetonians from schlepping their grey water around in the short term, but it's part of the bigger picture.

At 59 percent, agriculture is by far the biggest user of water in the country, and a shift away from livestock to plant sources could provide us with all the nutrients (yes, including protein) we need with better water usage: it takes 19 litres of water to produce a gram of protein from pulses; 112 litres is needed for the same amount of protein from beef.

Staying with the slime angle, let's hope the CEO of Tiger Brands takes some responsibility for what they're feeding South Africans. And let's not forget the bread price-fixing scandal for which they had to pay almost R100-million in fines. In that case, as in this latest one, it's the poorest South Africans who bear the cost, and who have little choice but to eat what they've been served.