JOHANNESBURG – A law firm in South Africa is preparing a class action lawsuit against Tiger Brands, a food company linked to what has been called the world’s largest and deadliest outbreak ofListeria monocytogenes.

South African activist and human rights attorney Richard Spoor is representing victims of the outbreak. Attorneys at Marler Clark, a Seattle-based law firm specializing in food safety litigation, are serving as consultants in the case. The US firm is not licensed to practice law in South Africa.

As of March 12, a total of 978 cases of listeriosis have been confirmed since January 2017, the Centre for Enteric Diseases (CED) unit of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported on March 14. The agency said 748 cases were reported in 2017, and 230 cases were reported in 2018. A total of 183 individuals have died.

A food safety investigation linked the outbreak to polony, a popular sausage, made at a food production facility operated by Tiger Brands in the city of Polokwane. South African public health officials, along with three technical advisers from the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Health Organization (WHO), visited the facility and conducted extensive food and environmental sampling. Test results showed Listeria monocytogenes in over 30 percent of the environmental samples collected from the plant. Subsequent whole genome sequencing confirmed the outbreak strain, ST6, in at least 16 environmental samples taken from the facility.

Rainbow Chicken Ltd. (RCL) also is under investigation. The company suspended all production of RCL Foods’ Rainbow Polony brand and launched a recall of all Rainbow Polony products.

On March 19, Tiger Brands released a statement confirming the outbreak strain was detected on the outer casings of two samples. “Whether this presence of LST6 can be said to have caused any illness or death remains unclear at present and testing in that regard is an ongoing process likely to take time.”

Tiger Brands closed the Polokwane plant and another in Germiston on March 4. “These factories remain closed while we undertake efforts to understand how LST6 came into our factory,” the company said in a statement. “All of the Enterprise ready to eat meat products have been recalled and are no longer available for sale.”

In a statement, Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall acknowledged the company is “dealing with a national crisis” and intends to take action if a “tangible link” is established between the company’s products and any illnesses or deaths.

“Although no link has, as yet, been confirmed between the presence of LST6 at our Polokwane plant and the loss of lifek, I deeply regret any loss of life and I want to offer my heartfelt condolences to all those who have lost their loved ones,” MacDougall said. “Any loss of life, no matter the circumstance, is tragic.”

MacDougall added that Tiger Brands is working with a team of local and international scientific experts in Listeria management, and facilities in Polokwane, Germiston and Pretoria are undergoing an extensive deep cleaning of all equipment and machinery along with some structural upgrades of the facilities.

“Listeriosis is a complex and global challenge with increasing outbreaks and mortality rate caused by a variety of food sources,” MacDougall said. “Other potential sources of Listeria may well exist and hence a country wide response is needed to address the tragic consequences of listeriosis. A sustainable national solution for South Africa will only be achievable through a collaborative multi-sectoral approach involving industry, government, regulators, scientific experts and civil society groupings.”

Meanwhile, WHO offered Listeria outbreak preparedness and response support to 16 African nations that also may be affected by the outbreak in South Africa. The agency said products possibly tainted by Listeria may have been exported to two West African countries and 14 members of the South African Development Community (SADC).

“This outbreak is a wakeup call for countries in the region to strengthen their national food safety and disease surveillance systems,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a statement.

The agency deployed experts to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland to support efforts that include raising awareness about listeriosis, and enhancing laboratory diagnosis and active surveillance. WHO did not recommend trade-related measures to address the outbreak.