Listeriosis linked firm sued for lack of hygiene

Mpotseng Moloi and her daughter Nomahlubi survived listeriosis after she underwent and emergency ceasarean section
Mpotseng Moloi and her daughter Nomahlubi survived listeriosis after she underwent and emergency ceasarean section
Image: Thulani Mbele

Polony firm Enterprise is accused of causing the world's biggest listeriosis outbreak by failing to observe crucial food safety practices.

The practices apparently included a failure to ensure that staff wash their hands before handling products.

This is what lawyers representing hundreds of victims in the class action lawsuit against food giant Tiger Brands, which owns Enterprise, have argued in papers filed at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Monday.

The company was served with summons yesterday.

Tiger Brands is accused of failing to put proper testing mechanisms in place and failing "to take reasonable steps to ensure that the persons working on food premises were suitably qualified or adequately trained in the principles and practices of food safety and hygiene".

Practices, including making sure that staff handling food wash their hands after toilet visits, were apparently not enforced.

The listeria outbreak, which was traced to contaminated cold meat products including polony, viennas and russians resulted in 218 deaths.

The lawyers, Richard Spoor Attorneys, want the company to compensate all 1,068 people - including the deceased - affected by the outbreak.

The contaminated products were ultimately traced back to an Enterprise foods outlet in Polokwane, Limpopo.

The class action covers people who lost relatives, suffered miscarriages and became disabled after contracting the deadly infection.

Victims are demanding to be compensated for a number of things including medical expenses, disability and psychological trauma.

In court papers, which Sowetan has seen, lawyers also accuse the company of failing to observe at least more than 30 food hygiene practices that could have ensured that infection does not spread.

They have argued that the company's food hygiene systems were so bad that they even failed to pick up the infection for months after an outbreak was declared.

"Even after the defendants became aware of the outbreak and its appalling human toll and learned of the likelihood that it was associated with a widely consumed and widely distributed foodstuff from a single source, such as those manufactured at its facilities, the defendants failed to take appropriate measures to eliminate their ready-to-eat processed meat products as a possible source of the outbreak," the papers read in part.

Tons of Enterprise cold meat products had to be pulled from store shelves and destroyed. Customers were refunded.

Tiger Brands announced the reopening of their factory outlet in Polokwane following thorough cleaning and inspections by environmental health practitioners in December last year.

Cathrine Marcus from Richard Spoor Attorneys said this was the first part of the case aimed at establishing liability on the part of Tiger Brands.

"We have a very strong case and we want our clients to be compensated as soon as possible," Marcus said.

Yesterday, Silindile Mbatha from Soweto, a listeriosis victim who lost her baby after he was born seven months into her pregnancy, said she was happy to hear that there was progress in their case.

"I hope in the end we will get justice. This should teach companies to check their products thoroughly before selling them to people," Mbatha said.

Mpontseng Moloi from Alexandra, northern Johannesburg, who contracted the infection while pregnant, said she hoped the case would give them closure.

Both Moloi and her daughter survived after she had to undergo an emergency Caesarean section.

"This gives us hope that something is being done after we suffered," Moloi said.

She also said the class action should be a lesson to other companies to follow strict food hygiene practices.

Tiger Brands spokesperson Nevashnee Naicker said they received the summons yesterday morning.

"We have only received summons this (Tuesday) morning and our lawyers are looking through it," Naicker said.

She said the company would release a proper statement once they have studied the court papers.