JOHANNESBURG – Tiger Brands, a South African food company, recently confirmed that an outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes was found in a sample of ready-to-eat processed meat produced at one of the company’s manufacturing facilities.

Public health officials in South Africa identified the outbreak strain as Lm ST-6. The Listeria outbreak in South Africa is the largest ever documented globally — of the nearly 700 individuals sickened by the outbreak strain 193 have died. Tiger Brands said in a statement that independent laboratory tests had confirmed the presence of the outbreak strain at the company’s Polokwane Enterprise Foods facility.

“We are enormously disappointed by this development,” Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall said in a statement. “We are making every effort to ascertain how ST6 arrived in a product manufactured in our production facility in Polokwane, despite us adhering strictly to all the prevailing industry standards. We again apologize to our customers, even as we still try to determine how it had happened. We pride ourselves on our food safety standards and a long track record of producing safe and reliable foodstuff. We are simply devastated to learn that one of our products contained ST6.”

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.

Listeria also was found in polony products made at a facility owned by Rainbow Chicken Ltd. (RCL Foods), but the sequence types of the isolates were not Lm ST-6.

Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi announced a recall of products made at certain RCL and Tiger Brands facilities. “Since the recall, the number of cases of Listeria detected per week has declined,” the agency reported. “However, as expected, cases will continue to occur because of the long incubation period of listeriosis, and because background sporadic cases of listeriosis will always occur.”

Tiger Brands is facing a class action lawsuit launched by Richard Spoor, a South African activist and human rights attorney who 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.

“This company has existed for more than 90 years. It will not shirk its responsibilities to its customers,” MacDougall said the company, which has been operating for more than 90 years, would “…leave no stone unturned to do what is right.”

“The listeriosis outbreak has been a terrible blight on the entire ready-to-eat meat industry,” he said. “It is imperative the entire industry come together to agree on appropriate standards with government. The world including South Africa will have to adapt to the threat of listeriosis. It is not a problem which is unique to South Africa or for that matter to Enterprise Foods. We are working tirelessly with industry and government to collaborate on a new approach in the interests of safeguarding the health and safety of consumers.”