Listeria Outbreak in South Africa

7 March 2018 Benjamin Walsh, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crisis Research Programme


An outbreak of listeriosis, confirmed by the South African Department of Health in December 2017, is gripping South Africa and has already been dubbed the worst outbreak the world has ever seen. The last widespread outbreak occurred in 2011, in the United States, with around 146 confirmed cases. In South Africa, 180 people have already been killed and some of the latest updates are suggesting that around one thousand people have been diagnosed.

The outbreak started in Polokwane, Limpopo Province, at a factory operated by Enterprise Foods. The particular product responsible for the outbreak is polony, a type of processed meat. The Health Department has advised people to only eat meat that is ready-to-eat and not processed. In an effort to isolate the problem, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia have suspended imports of chilled meats from South Africa and retailers have rushed to pull all remaining stock from the shelves.

Listeria is a bacterium found in soil, water, vegetables and animal faeces. It is typically found in processed foods and can cause fever, vomiting and confusion if not properly killed during the cooking phase of food preparation.


South Africa’s meat consumption and agricultural trade (for which animal products comprise the largest market share) have been increasing over the last five to ten years. A report on the South African meat market by the US Department of Agriculture found that, over the past two decades, steady economic growth, a rise in disposable incomes and a decrease in poverty levels has encouraged an overall rise in consumption of meat products.

Meat consumption is predicated on the strength of the South African economy. Last year, the World Bank lowered its estimates of South African growth. According to its data, South Africa’s economy, which grew by 0.5 per cent in 2016, would only grow by 0.6 per cent in 2017, a forecast 1.1 per cent in 2018 and two per cent in 2019. Recent statistics released by the government, however, show a rise in growth by 1.3 per cent in 2017, exceeding the estimates of the World Bank and the National Treasury (which forecast one per cent growth). Economic growth faltered in the first quarter of 2017 but bounced back with the next three quarters posting a one per cent quarter-on-quarter rise.

Many believe that occurred because of a rise in activity in the agricultural sector. For example, the largest positive contributor to third quarter GDP growth last year was agriculture, forestry and fishing which rose by ‘44.2 per cent and contributed 0.9 per cent to GDP growth.’ South Africa’s GDP grew by two per cent in the third quarter last year and agriculture contributed to just under half of that growth.

South Africa’s agricultural sector is not perfect and is likely to face many long-term challenges. Despite those challenges, however, it is clear that agriculture has largely contributed to the limited growth and confidence in the economy that the country is experiencing at the moment.

Food scares, however, will threaten the contributory power that agriculture has to national economic growth.

Studies have shown that one of the most damaging aspects of a food scare is the crippling impact it can have on consumer confidence. Food scares result in an immediate decline in demand followed by a gradual revival in public confidence. A French study found that after the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or “Mad Cow Disease”, scare hit Europe in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, beef consumption dropped dramatically in France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Consumers often substitute the contaminated product with a similar one. Substitutes, however, are sometimes labelled “shock complements” because of the reputational damage done to the former product. The food scare thus risks affecting the industry at large.

Efforts need to be made to restore public confidence in the meat market and ensure that, over the long term, the industry does not suffer a number of short-term setbacks that would prevent any sort of revival in consumer confidence. The agricultural industry contributes significantly to South African GDP growth, and should be protected accordingly.

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