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Finding prompt questions


Our government scientists did find the answer, though, after the infection of nine children at a Soweto creche

Tiger Brands has asked consumers to remove any Enterprise ready-to-eat meat products from their fridges and place in a plastic bag - away from other foods. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency/ANA

IT TOOK several months to track down the suspected source of the deadly listeriosis outbreak, and authorities will doubtless be relieved at finally being able to point to a processed meats facility in Polokwane, Limpopo.

As the hunt wore on, scores more people died – the toll so far has been put at 180, with 948 cases of listeriosis recorded. The tragic rate at which the bacteria were killing people was illustrated by official statistics along the way: 36 by December 5, 41 by December 18, and 61 by January 8.

In the Western Cape 115 confirmed cases have been reported, of which 29 people have died.

But scientific detection is probably not as slick as in CSI television shows, the Silent Witness series, or Hollywood tales of health eruptions.

Health authorities said they were dogged by poor reporting, and difficulty in tracing victims, rendering them unable to interrogate victims’ individual intakes and contacts in contracting the bug.

Optimal forensic conditions and perfect laboratories are also probably not quite so prepared for an outbreak involving many stretching across a country.

Our government scientists did find the answer, though, after the infection of nine children at a Soweto creche.

This took a multidisciplinary team to the Enterprise Foods plant in Polokwane, where it found the culprit bacteria.

It raises the question of why the manufacturer did not, in those months, pick it up in its own food safety precautions.

Surely a major food manufacturer like Tiger Brands, where food safety is said to be paramount, would have been on high alert when listeria claimed its first victims?

Should it not have intensified its checks countrywide at the first alarm, and maintained them for the duration of the hunt?

The detection process is far from over. More tests will follow. Exhausting though the search may have been, authorities cannot rest.

Further confirmation, and any other possible causes of listeriosis, must remain priorities.

The questions of culpability and liability also appear certain. There will also be the major challenge of preventing a recurrence. For if nothing effective is done to prevent another outbreak, the blame will justifiably splash far wider than just the food maker.