Four countries in southern Africa on Monday took steps against South African chilled meat imports. The World Health Organization says it is the largest-ever recorded outbreak of listeriosis.
Retailers rushed to pull meat products made at a factory associated with the oubreak.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi advised South Africans to stop eating all processed meat products sold as "ready to eat." He announced the source of the outbreak as the Enterprise Food plant about 300 kilometers (185 miles) northeast of Pretoria.
Meanwhile, Mozambique's agriculture ministry announced that it would immediately ban imports of South African chilled meats in an effort to contain the listeria outbreak.
Zambia also called on South African retail chains to also withdraw products produced at the Enterprise Food plant.
Since January 2017, 948 people have contracted listeriosis, which is caused by bacteria from soil, water, vegetation and animal feces known to contaminate fresh food — notably fresh meat. According to official figures, at least 180 people have subsequently died.
Angry consumers line up for refunds
Outside Enterprise sites in South Africa, there were lines of angry consumers as well as small retailers. They had gathered to demand refunds on their purchases of ready-to-eat meat products that include polony — a local version of baloney sausage — sliced ham, and Frankfurter-style sausages.
"I've eaten already some polony and Russian (sausage). I don't know, maybe I can get some disease," said Bongani Mavuso, a taxi driver, as he stood in line outside Enterprise's factory shop in Germiston, Johannesburg. "I'm just coming to collect my money."
Lawrence MacDougall, the chief executive of Tiger Brands, which owns Enterprise, denied that its products had been shown to be responsible for the deaths. "There is no direct link with the deaths to our products," MacDougall told a news conference.
He did acknowledge that the government had linked the ST6 strain of listeria bacteria detected in Enterprise facilities with the outbreak that has resulted in 180 deaths.
"We are being extra cautious and vigilant, we are recalling all products made from the two facilities," he said, adding that the government had only ordered the company to withdraw three product lines.
"Any loss of life is tragic. It is devastating for me to have our products linked to this outbreak."
Enterprise-branded products accounted for 28.2 percent of processed meat sales in South Africa in 2017.
South Africa's two largest supermarket chains, Shoprite and Pick n Pay, also pulled products made by Rainbow Chickens after Motsoaledi confirmed that listeriosis had been identified in samples taken from one of its facilities.
The infection mainly affects children and has a three-week incubation period, which makes it difficult to track. Contamination in humans — especially those with compromised immune systems — can result in flu-like illness, infection of the bloodstream and, in severe cases, infection of the brain which can prove fatal.
The United Nations had previously said that South Africa's listeriosis outbreak is believed to be the largest-ever worldwide.
av/rc (Reuters, AFP)