Chicken Industry

State under fire over lax food safety regulations

After the recent listeriosis outbreak that claimed the lives of more than 200 people, the department of health has come under fire for lax food safety legislation.

FairPlay, a trade organisation fighting dumping in the poultry and sugar industries, has expressed concerns over the tardy review of local food safety legislation and its perceived laxity, and says the department is failing to protect South African consumers.

FairPlay is supported by Astral Foods, Country Bird, the Food and Allied Workers Union, KFC, RCL Foods and Unitrans.

FairPlay spokesperson Melinda Shaw said: “The outbreak of listeriosis highlighted the urgent need for packaging of all imported meat products to comply with the same regulations demanded of local products, which ensures full traceability and accountability.

“We believe we should not let the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and the health department get away with compromising South African consumers’ safety without some kind of challenge, and we need more voices to get this out.”

Last month, government amended parts of existing food safety legislation. Amendments to the hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) system, which is part of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act of 1972, were gazetted – a move that industry bodies say was only precipitated by the outbreak of listeriosis.

However, the health department denied this, saying it constantly looked at food legislation and made amendments when necessary.

The HACCP is a systematic preventive approach to food safety from biological, chemical and physical hazards in the production process, which can cause the finished product to be unsafe.

The health department conceded that, “currently, there is no legislative provision for the sharing of laboratory food testing information during an outbreak”.

Health department spokesperson Foster Mohale said: “The HACCP is not mandatory for the ready-to-eat processed meat food handling enterprises and there is absence of microbiological criteria for listeria monocytogenes.”

Outlining some of the amendments to the legislation, Mohale said neither the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act nor the National Health Act prescribe or make allowances for the submission of rapid information from the industry or food testing laboratories in the event of a food-bourne illness outbreak.

“To ensure that information requirements during an outbreak can be provided with urgency, regulatory review and inclusion of a provision is needed to address confidentiality issues,” Mohale said.

“The confirmed source of the listeriosis outbreak immediately triggered regulation 4(b) in the regulations relating to the HACCP, which makes provision for the director-general of health to recommend a food handling enterprise to apply the HACCP system on the basis of food safety and the health of the consumers.”

When asked why the department denied that not all legislation reviews were due to an outbreak, Mohale said: “Legislation is dynamic and must be based on science. The regular review of legislation is therefore critically important.

“A long time frame for developing, reviewing and completing legislation is not unusual as it is a highly consultative process as required by the Constitution.”

He added that work on the review of the food safety legislation was prioritised in line with available resources.

Relevant stakeholders, said Mohale, met to discuss the mandatory HACCP process versus a compulsory specification for processed meat products, and what the implications would be of having two competent authorities trying to address food safety in the affected industry at the same time.

The South African Meat Producers Association (Sampa) is working with government on this matter and has tabled recommendations on the legislation (food safety) based on both global best practice as well as taking South Africa’s unique landscape into consideration.

“We have actively recommended to government to legislate the implementation of HACCP at all meat processors and it has accepted to do so at all meat plants within nine months,” says Sampa spokesperson Andrews Cocks.

Max Matavire