Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi on Thursday said his department would assist victims of listeriosis and their families with data to institute litigation against companies found to have sold food contaminated with a deadly listeriosis strain.
“Those members of community who want to litigate, we will give all the information, we will give them all the data, we will given them all the expertise to help them to litigate…,” Motsoaledi said in Parliament, responding to a highly charged debate on the outbreak, which has claimed more than 180 lives.
Two companies, Enterprise and Rainbow Chicken Limited (RCL) were issued with safety recall notices after samples from their plants were found to contain listeriosis, a food-borne disease.
Members of Parliament (MPs) had insisted Motsoaledi ensure companies found to have breached health and safety laws and regulations be prosecuted.
“There is no way, regardless of what the [Democratic Alliance] DA is saying, there is no way we are going to keep quiet. Laws are available to bring people to account and they are going to be punished in terms of the available legislation,” the minister said in response to DA MP Lindy Wilson’s questioning.
“It is common knowledge that the Minister has announced that the source has been traced to the Enterprise processing plant in Polokwane, and Rainbow Chicken,” said Wilson.
“While I am not here to absolve either factory for the role they have played in the loss of lives in South Africa, I question whether they are solely responsible.”
Other opposition parties responded angrily to the DA, accusing it of protecting white-owned companies.
“The fact of the matter remains that over 180 people have died as a result of these unscrupulous companies who prioritise profit even over safety of people…,” said Economic Freedom Fighters MP Elsabe Ntlangwini.
“It is engraved in our DNA as South Africans not to question the transgressions of white companies.”
Wilson said the Enterprise and Rainbow chicken plants should have been inspected every three months, bemoaning a severe shortage of environmental health practitioners who are able to perform these inspections.
Inkatha Freedom Party MP Narend Singh said he expected the corporate entities identified as being sources of the deadly outbreak should bear the legal responsibility for their actions, and that they cooperate with authorities, and provide assistance to affected families.
“No amount of false legal poetry can absolve them form bearing prime responsibility for the deaths..,” said Singh
Enterprise polony has been found to be one of the sources of the outbreak by the health department. The company is owned by Tiger Brands, a company that is not stranger to controversy. In 2007, the Competition Commission fined Tiger brands R99 milion for fixing the price of bread — a staple food for the poor — along with a cartel of its competitors.
National Freedom Party MP Ahmed Shaik Emam accused Tiger Brands of continuing its practice of “stealing from the poor”.
“There must be compensation. These companies…they must be held liable and their arrogant attitude of enterprise foods must not be tolerated. They must be brought to account,” said Shaik Emam.
In a media briefing on Monday, Tiger Brands chief executive Laurence MacDoughall refused to take responsibility for the outbreak, denying any direct links between the deaths of 180 people and its products.
This was after the health department said more than 16 environmental samples from the Enterprise factory in Polokwane, in the Limpopo province, tested positive for the ST6 listeriosis monocytogenes strain, which is responsible for the outbreak.
MPs also wanted the strengthening of food health inspectors across the country.
Motsoaledi agreed, but said he needed the help of MPs to help effect changes to the Constitution which assigned the function of providing health inspectorate services to municipalities and not national government.
“It was a mistake for the Constitution to give that job to local government because many municipalities simply cannot perform it because they’ve got basic services which they must provide like refuse removal, etc.”