The panic caused by the listeriosis outbreak and the link to some of the most widely-used products, especially by the country’s poor, took an emotional turn on Monday afternoon.
By then 181 people, mostly infants, had died from among the 940 reported cases of the disease nationwide over the past year.
The nation was still reeling from the shock of the department of health tracing the outbreak to Tiger Brands’ Enterprise cold meats facility in Polokwane, which supplied these products to several provinces.
When Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence MacDougall invited us to a briefing at the company’s headquarters in Bryanston that day, there was a level of expectation among journalists and the public that he would convey some form of apology to those affected.
This was especially so because the department had given the impression that the deaths and illnesses could be directly linked to the plant, given that the same strain of listeria (ST6) in the patients who died was found at their facility.
Seated directly in front of the CEO and his executives I cringed at the tangible tension as journalists pressed on with questions about what level of accountability he was willing to accept and why he had not apologised. There was no direct link, he repeated, between the deaths and Tiger Brands’ products.
The company was emphatic about the superiority of their health and safety protocols. Independently approved by an international food safety body, this facility adhered to European standards.
But Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi has since announced his legal team was looking into exactly which law or regulation the company might have contravened, as the department’s industry-wide investigation into other possible listeria contaminations continues.
The moment was reminiscent of the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings when former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu stirred up ire in the public when she repeatedly denied direct responsibility for the deaths of mental patients transferred from a government-contracted hospital and scattered across the province at non-governmental organisations in a cost-cutting exercise she had signed off on. She called it a collective decision.
Like then, when emotions are high and some of the most vulnerable have died senseless deaths, the public needs to see someone step up and take responsibility (even collectively). The intuitive need to find a cause and see justice done for such a tragedy is seldom sated by a single figure willing to say “I’m sorry”.
There are legal, and in Tiger Brands’ case, scientific technicalities involved in linking a death to a single entity. It is often reasoned that a chain of actions or inaction by several people along the way can be collectively blamed. That it’s a system gone wrong that needs to be investigated in its entirety.
I understand and respect this reasoning as it offers insights into the chains of responsibility involved in the goods and services we trust these systems with.
Be that as it may, it will take some grovelling and a serious commitment to doing better to regain the trust of the poor and vulnerable millions who rely on ready-to-eat, low-priced meat products for sustenance.