JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – The worst outbreak of registered listeria is just in its early stages and is likely to infect more people in South Africa and the region, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said on Thursday.
The infection that can affect the blood and brain systems has killed 180 people in South Africa since January of last year. Neighboring Namibia reported its first case on Tuesday and said the victim was fighting for his life in the hospital.
"We are just in the beginning and we should expect other cases to arise," Motsoaledi told reporters after meeting with health ministers from across the region.
He said he expected more cases to be reported throughout South Africa, without giving further details.
The government has linked the outbreak to the "poland": low-priced processed meats that are mostly consumed by the poor.
South African food producer Tiger Brands, which makes poland, said on Friday that a health department report had confirmed the presence of the listeria strain LST6 at its factory in the northern city of Polokwane.
Authorities are also investigating a plant owned by RCL Foods that makes a similar sausage product, although they have not reported any discovery of listeria.
Both companies, which claim to be cooperating with the authorities, suspended the production of processed meat in their plants after the sanitary authorities ordered the withdrawal of the products both in the country and abroad.
Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia have banned imports of processed meat, dairy products, vegetables and South African fruits. Mozambique and Namibia suspended imports of processed meat products and Botswana said it was withdrawing them. Malawi intensified the detection of food imports from South Africa.
Motsoaledi said he was concerned about an incident when Ministry of Health inspectors were barred from entering the factory operated by the Tiger Brand Enterprise unit in Polokwane.
"We had to find the police to accompany them," Motsoaledi told Reuters after the meeting.
Tiger Brands said it had apologized for the incident, but said the inspectors had not received a letter authorizing entry.
"Since the health officer had not been at the Polokwane facility before, the security team said there were strict protocols for entry," said Tiger spokeswoman Nevashnee Naicker.
A human rights lawyer said over the weekend that he would file a clbad action lawsuit against Tiger on behalf of the families of the people who died.
Tiger Brands CEO Lawrence McDougal said last week that there was no direct link between the deaths and their processed cold meat products.
Written by James Macharia; Edition of Andrew Heavens