The strain of listeriosis that caused South African retail giant, Woolworths, to recall and withdraw its Frozen Savoury Rice Mix product is causing havoc in Europe claiming nine lives on the back of 47 reported serious cases of infection. This may only be the beginning.
The Frozen Savoury Rice Mix withdrawn by Woolworths originate in Belgium. It contains frozen sweetcorn sourced from the Greenyard Factory in Hungary which has been identified as the main source of the Listeria monocytogenes outbreak in Europe.
Its origins are traced back to 2015 and it peaked during the first half of this year with the reporting of 18 cases. While the source is in Hungary, Finland seems like the epicentre of the outbreak with 23 cases reported so far, followed by 11 cases in the United Kingdom, 7 in Sweden, 4 in Denmark and 2 in Austria.
It is feared that the numbers of affected people may rise because listeriosis generally lies low for a while before showing up. It’s known to incubate for up to 70 days. And there is the fact that frozen vegetables have a long shelf life which raises possible future consumption of implicated products bought before the recall.
And the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have expressed concern that the outbreak may have been grossly underestimated since it was identified through sequencing. Only a handful of affected countries routinely use this advanced technique.
The affected plant is owned by a company called Greenyard, a producer of a wide variety of fresh, frozen and prepared fruit and vegetables. It supplies leading European retailers. Products from the affected plant have been distributed to plants belonging to the company in other EU Member States. These include Belgium, UK, Germany, France and Poland. Final products were also sent to Romania, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia, Germany, Finland, Czech Republic, Croatia and Austria.
The EU authorities have reported that the same strains of Listeria monocytogenes have been detected in frozen vegetables produced by the company in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Firm control measures were only taken recently. It was only in June that the Hungarian Food Chain Safety Office banned the marketing of frozen corn, peas, beans, spinach and sorrel made in the affected plant between August 13, 2016, and June 20, 2018.
Woolworths is the only South African company that has admitted a possible connection by taking precautionary measures. Woolworths has qualified its recall as a precautionary move, saying listeria bacteria are easily destroyed by cooking. “The Frozen Savoury Rice Mix product is uncooked and frozen and so requires cooking before consumption. Thorough cooking ensures that the product is safe. We are voluntarily recalling this product as a precautionary measure, on the global instruction of the Hungarian Food Safety Agency.”
Woolworths added that “None of our other frozen sweetcorn or vegetable products are affected.”
Coming on the back of the massive listeriosis outbreak that swept through South Africa recently, the Woolworths angle was bound to cause a mini panic in South Africa. Traced to cold meats processing plants, belonging to JSE listed food giant Tiger Brands, the South African outbreak has claimed about 200 lives.