Largest-ever listeria outbreak in southern Africa kills hundreds: processed meat to blame

16 Mar 2018


image source: AJC1/Flickr

Whenever we buy processed food, we are putting our faith in a long production line that we normally know very little about. How exactly are the ingredients in a supermarket hot dog sourced and treated? Many people would rather not know! Yet this trust which we all place in the providers of our food is a matter of life and death, with recent events in southern Africa serving as a sober reminder.

Starting in December 2017, cases of listeria started to be reported in South Africa. Listeria is a particularly dangerous food-borne illness, because it has a long incubation period, and an infected person may not show symptoms for up to 70 days after eating contaminated food. As such, it can take a long time to trace the source of the outbreak: it was only on March 4th 2018, after 180 deaths, that a Tiger Brands plant was identified as such, specifically a sausage known locally as polony (after Bologna sausage, like baloney) which is produced there. Tiger Brands is no small fry, either. It’s the largest food company in South Africa. And now it’s responsible for the largest listeria outbreak in history.


In response, several countries in the region have banned meat imports from South Africa, including Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana and Zambia.South African Health Minister has warned people to “avoid all processed meats”, particularly pregnant women – listeria is notoriously dangerous to babies in the womb. But as usual, the problem is being treated as a temporarily glitch in the system, rather than an indication that the food system itself needs radical change. Of course sanitation checks will be carried out, factories will be identified, checked and cleaned, managers will be fired, and share prices will fall. But the underlying issue remains: listeria appears in industrial processed meats, an unnatural and unhealthy invention which has no place in our diet.


For years, South Africa has been one of the key nodes in the Slow Meat network, as evidenced in its Soweto Eat-In held in October last year and the Slow Meat Fair held in 2015. South Africa has the highest per capita meat consumption of any country in Africa, but much of it is processed meat or factory farmed produce, and without an overhaul of sanitary standards and food safety this tragedy is destined to repeat itself. Slow Food urges people in South Africa and across the world to reject processed meat wholesale: it’s unsustainable, it’s unhealthy, and it’s made by large, faceless corporations with no interest in animal welfare or farming communities, driven solely by profit. In this case, the corner-cutting has gone too far, and this will certainly have impact on Tiger Brands, but there are plenty of other companies in line to soak up their lost market share. The Slow Food activists in the Country and worldwide are committed to promote consumption of less and better meat. What we can all do to contribute to a real change in the food system is think carefully about what we buy, where it comes from, what goes into it, and what the implications are for the people and animals involved in the production. If the thought of how a package of processed food comes into being is in any way disturbing, don’t buy it.

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