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LESSONS FROM THE LISTERIOSIS OUTBREAK

Safety comes from learning from the past to be better prepared in the future.

With everything that’s been happening over the past few years, it’s still important to look back at the challenges we’ve overcome and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. It feels like just yesterday, but it’s already been five years since the 2017/18 Listeria Outbreak in South Africa, the biggest the world has seen.

By the way, what exactly is listeriosis? Well, it’s a disease caused by high numbers of listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium found in soil, water, plants and animal faeces. It usually spreads to humans through contaminated food. While cooking kills listeria, it can multiply in the refrigerator. High-risk foods include deli meat, soft cheeses and cold-smoked fish – anything that can sit in a refrigerator for a long time and be eaten without further cooking. Symptoms include fever, muscle pain and a stiff neck. If diagnosed, it can be treated early.

Over the outbreak period of 1 January 2017 to 17 July 2018, a total of 1060 cases were reported. Of this, 216 people died, many of them infants and children.

As a result, the range of processed meat products (including polony, sausages and vienna’s) that were responsible were recalled from retail stores and spaza shops all over the country. The outbreak was linked to a factory in Polokwane, Limpopo (in the north-east of SA), owned by Tiger Brands’ Enterprise Unit.

During the period, the government recommended that South Africans avoid all types and brands of chilled, ready-to-eat meat products. The situation report published by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) has resulted in three critical pieces of amended legislation:

 

  1. Regulations governing “General Hygiene Requirements for Food Premises, the Transport of Food and Related Matters” (22 June 2018)
  2. An amendment to the regulations pertaining to the application of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control System (HACCP) (14 June 2018)
  3. A draft of the revised “Regulations Governing Microbiological Standards for Foodstuffs and Related Matters”

 

These developments call for a tightening of industry regulations with processors of heat-treated, ready-to-eat meat products now required to implement a HACCP system within nine months. The HACCP approach involves the systematic assessment of all the main steps involved in the food manufacturing operations and the identification of those steps that are critical to the safety of the final product.

What can Ecowize do to prevent a recurrence? As food safety experts, we play a major role in enabling our customers to prevent outbreak. You see, Listeria monocytogenes are easy to deal with in free-floating form but become resistant to cleaning and certain sanitisers when biofilms form. These biofilms can develop anywhere within a factory, especially where there is a periodic movement of liquid. It’s places like drains, damaged floors, pooling water, inside or underneath equipment, behind iso-panelling, trolley wheels, hard-to-reach areas or in equipment that isn’t stripped often.

It’s vital that we maintain the right approach to cleaning to beat this pathogen. We achieve this through a collaborative relationship that exists between our teams and the factory, including:

 

  1. Operations: running on schedule, maintaining a satisfactory pre-clean and handing over on-time. The key lesson learned from the listeria outbreak is that production should not trump quality and cleaning team’s cleaning window should not be compromised. Unfortunately, we are seeing this trend again.
  2. Maintenance: completing necessary disassembly activities prior to cleaning to prevent contamination and allow for thorough cleaning of equipment
  3. Ecowize Expertise: strictly adhering to the ten steps of cleaning, weekly acid wash and stripping schedules
  4. Quality control: acting as governance over all activities; completing the relevant assessments and getting on-time feedback; making sure that all parties work together as a unit with the same goal to ensure food safety for the consumer
  5. Acting immediately: assisting the customer with their seek and destroy intervention when Listeria is found on product samples, thus indicating possible harbourage areas where Listeria may be present, keeping “niche” areas in mind.  During this protocol, continuous collaboration between maintenance, production, cleaning and quality departments is maintained to ensure an effective outcome.  The main objective is to eliminate or reduce the possibility of contamination onto other surfaces or areas and product.

 

Here are a few key points we all need to keep in mind:

  • Listeria monocytogenes enter plants daily (on raw materials and products) and cross-contamination occurs by staff and equipment moving and non-compliance to GMP’s.
  • Detecting these Listeria monocytogenes requires constant monitoring.
  • Protect your cleaning time
  • It is crucial to comply with the stripping schedule.
  • The prevention of bio-film formation is critical.
  • Maintain the correct sanitizer concentrations to minimize the opportunity for development of resistance to certain sanitizers
  • Regular/periodic acid-wash procedures are essential to managing bio-film build-up.
  • Effective cleaning requires a good working relationship between the factory and the cleaning service provider.

 

Working conscientiously together, we can prevent future outbreaks.

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