Factory fingered as source of listeriosis outbreak to reopen

An employee loads polony onto a truck at a Tiger Brands factory in Polokwane in March. The plant was given the go-ahead to re-open on Thursday.
An employee loads polony onto a truck at a Tiger Brands factory in Polokwane in March. The plant was given the go-ahead to re-open on Thursday.
Image: Alaister Russell

Tiger Brands was on Thursday given the green light by health authorities to reopen its polony-producing Polokwane plant, named as the source of the world’s most deadly listeriosis outbreak in March.

The announcement comes just three days after the Johannesburg High Court granted an order certifying a class action against Tiger Brands, which will determine whether the company is liable for the outbreak.

The legal case relies on the fact that the outbreak strain of listeria monocytogenes, which infected 91% of the people who died‚ was found at the Enterprise factory in Polokwane.

Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall stressed in his announcement on Thursday that: "No liability has been established against the company for the listeriosis outbreak”.

“The legal process of the class action must still take its course," he said.

The company is to co-fund a communication campaign to notify the victims and families of the more than 200 who died of the class action.

Of the 1,065 confirmed cases, only 150 are currently represented by the two firms of attorneys representing the victims: Richard Spoor Attorney and LHL Attorneys.

Tiger Brands said its legal representatives had worked closely with the attorneys for the class action to help expedite the certification process.

“This collaboration significantly reduced the period the certification process took to be finalised," it said.

Richard Spoor confirmed on Thursday that Tiger Brands had paid R1m towards the media campaign - "and we will contribute the same amount".

“We would have had to mount a far more extensive, expensive campaign were it not for health minster Aaron Motsoaledi’s willingness to send notices about the class action to its database of doctors, laboratories and many of the victims.”

Spoor said the firms’ contribution to the media campaign, and many of their other considerable expenses related to the listeriosis class action, were being met by the US-based firm of attorneys, Marler Clark, which has for more than 20 years specialised in food-borne disease outbreak litigation worldwide, and has taken a keen interest in South Africa’s outbreak.

Meanwhile, for the first time since March, Tiger Brand’s Polokwane plant is to begin producing polony, viennas and other ready-to-eat processed meats, destined for supermarket fridges across the country.

This is after the Capricorn Municipality’s environmental health department gave the company an official Certificate of Acceptability for the Polokwane factory on the completion of rigorous assessments.

The certificate endorses the factory’s standards and operating procedures for the safe production of food products.

“The Department of Health has referred the industry to the CODEX standard, which says that for finished ready-to-eat products which promote growth of the bacteria, there must be zero listeria detection in products, both as they leave the factories as well as to the point of sale,” Mac Dougall said.

The new red polony packs will look a little different.

In a bid to create full transparency, Enterprise Foods has introduced a “revolutionary” 7-step quality check process from farm to table, MacDougall said, and those details will appear on-pack, as well as on the Enterprise Foods website.

“We recognise the tremendous responsibility we have as business to move beyond compliance and the standards we have in South Africa and to be at the forefront of solutions that give assurance to all South Africans - whether they eat our products or not - that the food safety system is robust,” MacDougall said.

“The Centre for Food Safety, which we launched in collaboration with the Stellenbosch University on November 6, is a critical milestone in this quest.

“As a food manufacturing company with a long, strong and proud heritage in South Africa, there is an enormous amount of trust that is placed in us and our products.

“I know that some of that trust has been lost as a result of the listeriosis crisis and that we need to earn back that trust over time through our actions and by keeping our word.”

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