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Economic impact of listeriosis not yet quantifiable - economist

Jan 10 2018 06:00
Lameez Omarjee

Cape Town – It is too early to determine the impact of the listeriosis outbreak on the economy as the source of the outbreak has not yet been identified, according to an economist.

Listeriosis is a treatable disease caused by bacteria which can be found in soil, water, vegetation and the faeces of some animals.

Speaking to Fin24 by phone on Tuesday, head of FNB Agriculture’s information and marketing Dawie Maree explained that not knowing the source - whether it be water, abattoirs and food processing plants - makes it difficult to put any numbers behind it. The Department of Trade and Industry in turn directed queries about the impact on trade to the health department. 

At a briefing on Monday, Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi said finding the source of the outbreak is like finding a needle in a haystack, News24 reported.

“The problem is that we are still looking for the haystack before we start searching for the needle - we don’t even know yet which haystack it is, that’s how difficult this thing is," he said.

Tracking from January 1 2017, there have been 727 laboratory-confirmed cases in South Africa which have caused 61 deaths.  “Animal products (including meat, meat products, dairy products), seafood and fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables can be contaminated from these sources,” said Motsoaledi.

Maree said the impact of the disease is different to avian flu, which was more quantifiable as the number of birds and farms affected could be calculated. Avian flu knocked supplies of poultry products and raised their prices

Listeriosis however affects more than one food sector and humans can be affected by the disease too. Maree explained that listeriosis has not yet impacted food inflation or supply. “The listeriosis had been coming along for a couple of months, and we did not see an effect on food supply and inflation.” He added that it is unlikely to impact food security.

However the cost of eradicating the listeriosis would be “substantial”, he warned. This is particularly true if the source is water, or an abattoir or food processing plant, he explained. “If an abattoir has to be closed, it will impact employment.”

Sovereign Foods abattoir cleared as source

On Tuesday chicken producer Sovereign Foods issued a statement indicating that a ban on its abattoir in Hartbeespoort was lifted, after it had been cleared by the health department as being the source of the outbreak.

The ban was originally placed on the abattoir in December 2017, after environmental health practitioners from the city of Tshwane traced chicken from an affected patient back to it. The abattoir can now resume with its food preparation, a notice from the Tshwane health and social development department read. 

“We are pleased that the prohibition has been lifted and the abattoir has been declared clean,” said Blaine van Rensburg, Sovereign Foods head of production.

Van Rensburg added that steps are being taken to ensure that products are “safer” than they already are. Sovereign Foods will install new carcass washing points “above and beyond” legislative requirements, he said. 

Maree urged consumers and producers to take care when handling food. Consumers should buy food from reputable sources that abide to the food safety act.

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