JOHANNESBURG – An outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes that killed at least 180 individuals in South Africa has been linked to polony, a popular sausage, made at a food production facility operated by Tiger Brands, a unit of Enterprise Food.

South African Minister of Health Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi said traceback investigations linked the pathogen to polony made at a food production facility in the city of Polokwane. Motsoaledi said a facility operated by Rainbow Chicken Ltd. (RCL Foods) also is under investigation.

As of March 2, South Africa’s Health Ministry has recorded 948 laboratory-confirmed cases of listeriosis. Of that total, 180 case patients have died which represents a 27 percent fatality rate.

South African Minister of Health Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi
Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, Ministry of Health, South Africa

“We advise members of the public to avoid all processed meat products that are sold as ready-to-eat,” Motsoaledi said during a March 4 media briefing. “While we know that polony is definitely implicated, there is a risk of cross-contamination of other ready-to-eat processed meat products, either at production, distribution or retail.

“This is because Listeria on the exterior casing (packaging) of polony can be transferred to other products it comes into contact with, including viennas, russians, frankfurters, other sausages, and other ‘cold meat’ products that are typically not cooked before eating,” he said.

Motsoaledi ordered both facilities to shut down and a recall of all retail products manufactured at three meat processing plants with strains of Listeria linked to the outbreak.

Motsoaledi said a team from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), in Johannesburg, interviewed 109 ill people to obtain details about the foods they had eaten before getting sick. Ninety-three (85 percent) people reported eating ready-to-eat (RTE) processed meat products, of which polony was the most common followed by viennas/sausages and then other ‘cold meats,’ he said.

On Jan. 12, a pediatrician treated nine school children for gastroenteritis. Environmental health officials were notified and obtained samples from two unrelated polony brands manufactured by Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken Ltd. (RCL) which were submitted for testing the same day. Using whole genome sequencing, researchers at NCID confirmed ST6 sequence type on all three isolates on Jan. 27.

South African public health officials, along with three technical advisers from the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Health Organization, visited a food production facility in Polokwane and conducted extensive food and environmental sampling, according to Motsoaledi.

Listeria monocytogenes was isolated from over 30 percent of the environmental samples collected from this site, which happens to be the Enterprise factory in Polokwane,” Motsoaledi said. “To conclude the investigation, whole genome sequencing analysis was performed from this Enterprise factory and the results became available midnight or last night. The outbreak strain, ST6, was confirmed in at least 16 environmental samples collected from this Enterprise facility.”

Preliminary results also show that several RTE products made at another Enterprise plant in Germiston tested positive for Listeria, but the strain is not yet known, Motsoaledi said.

A strain of Listeria monocytogenes has been linked to polony produced under the Enterprise Foods brand in South Africa.
A strain of Listeria monocytogenes has been linked to polony produced under the Enterprise brand in South Africa. (photo: Tiger Brands)

In a statement, Tiger Brands said “We are all extremely concerned by listeriosis — we all want to find the source or sources of listeriosis, together with government. As a company that prioritizes the health and safety of consumers above all else, we are committed to ensuring that all Enterprise products, as identified, will be recalled as part of the directive received. We are working very closely with the officials at present to conduct the process and will provide updates to the public on this matter.”

The company increased testing for Listeria and confirmed the presence of a strain of Listeria in some products on Feb. 14. “…but the presence of the ST6 strain has not been confirmed by our tests,” the company said. “The company has furthermore sent its samples to an external laboratory to test for the strain itself and should receive the results tomorrow [March 5].”

An investigation of the RCL Wolwehoek production facility is also underway, Motsoaledi said. Polony products have tested positive for Listeria, but the sequence types of the isolates are not ST6.

Motsoaledi noted that contamination of RTE processed meat products is a health risk and more than 10 percent of environmental samples collected by public health officials at the Wolwehoek facility tested positive for the pathogen. The sequence types of these isolates also are not known.

RCL foods has recalled and stopped producing the company's polony products sold under the Simply Chicken brand.
RCL foods has recalled and stopped producing the company's polony products sold under the Simply Chicken brand. (photo: RCL Foods)

In a statement, RCL Foods said the company’s board and management “…remain deeply concerned about this tragic outbreak, and its effect on many South Africans.”

The company has suspended all production of RCL Foods’ Rainbow Polony brand and is recalling all Rainbow Polony products despite the fact that test results of its polony product are still pending. RCL Foods is treating the outbreak “…as a crisis internally…” but noted “…that the specific strain of the pathogen responsible for the outbreak has not been isolated to the Wolwehoek facility.”

The company noted that all RCL Foods facilities are FSSC (Food Safety System Certification) 22000 or ISO 22000 compliant. Additionally, the company follows strict procedures for pathogen management, including:

  • Hazard identification and Risk Assessments;
  • Raw material management (SQA, Microbiological verification);
  • Cleaning procedures;
  • Procedures to prevent cross contamination; and
  • Scheduled testing of products and processing environments.

RCL Foods manufactures a broad line of private label food products. The company operates across South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Uganda and Zambia.