The origin of the outbreak in South Africa remains a mystery, but a Sovereign Food abattoir has been closed after listeria bacteria were found there.
In the past month, the listeriosis outbreak plague's death toll has nearly doubled, from 36 to 61, as SA grapples with an outbreak that expert says is the worst on record – worldwide.
Sovereign Foods, which is based in the Eastern Cape, is one of the major poultry producers in Africa. The company delisted from the JSE on 22 November 2017, concluding a management buyout funded by a private equity firm called Capitalworks.
Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, said the strain found at the abattoir was not the ST6 strain responsible for the deadly outbreak. At a briefing in Pretoria on Monday, a chicken sample that was collected from the fridge at a patient's home tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
This chicken was traced back to the store and then back to the abattoir, which was sourced from Sovereign Foods, said Motsoaledi.
All the samples collected from the abattoir have so far failed to pick up the ST6 strain of the outbreak that the country is experiencing.
As a precaution‚ the abattoir was served with a prohibition notice pending further investigations.
“At this juncture, we cannot conclude that the abattoir called Sovereign Foods is the source of the present outbreak. But we can conclude that it has listeria, which can cause illness, and hence it was in the best interest of public health that the abattoir was prohibited from further preparing food pending the cleaning of the environment and meeting certain conditions given to them,” added Motsoaledi.
He said the number of cases of listeriosis confirmed via lab testing had increased from 557 in early December to 727 at the latest count. Food scientists are claiming that it is the worst documented listeriosis outbreak in global history.
“Now out of the total of 727 laboratory confirmed cases which we know about, we are only able to trace 134 actual patients, which is only 18%. This means that we still have a long way to go in searching. Out of the 134 traced patients, 61 had passed on,” said Motsoaledi.
The health department had taken a number of measures to fight the outbreak, including declaring listeriosis a notifiable condition for the first time in history; conducting genome sequencing analysis on samples, and checking with potential source areas that hygiene guidelines were being followed.
Rufaro Chatora, the country representative of the World Health Organisation, said SA had done well to declare the listeriosis as a notifiable condition. He said while the condition had been found in France, the US and Denmark, SA’s latest outbreak were one of the longest.
Acting director-general of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Mooketsa Ramasodi, said the department was compiling a list of countries, including Brazil, where it was considering a precautionary and temporary ban on the import of foods that could have been contaminated through unhygienic practices.
He said the department was not aware of any country which intended to ban South African goods as a result of the latest outbreak. The outbreak is across all nine provinces and clinical tests have revealed that the listeria originates from a single source — "most likely a food product on the market or a series of food products produced in the same manufacturing environment", says Dr Lucia Anelich‚ a prominent South African food microbiologist and food safety expert.
"I concur with my colleagues from business‚ academia and governments‚ in Europe‚ Australia‚ Canada and the US‚ that this is the worst documented listeriosis outbreak in global history," she said.
Foods most often implicated in foodborne outbreaks globally are deli meats (polony‚ ham etc) and hot dogs; refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads; unpasteurised (raw) milk and dairy products; soft cheese made with unpasteurised milk‚ such as feta‚ brie and camembert; refrigerated smoked seafood; and raw sprouts and pre-packaged salads.