It is easy to accept that the people who have opened tuckshops all over Zimbabwe are simply enterprising individuals who want to fend for their families. But these outlets could be breeding ground for listeria if stringent measures are not instituted. Government has already banned the importation of cold meats as a measure to curtail the outbreak.
But is it really enough considering that Zimbabwe has an estimated 51 known informal entry points? Smuggling is rampant, and it is mainly this contraband that is sold cheaply at tuckshops.
As such, Zimbabwe remains at high risk of importing listeriosis, especially seeing as traders get a good quantity of their products from the border province of Polokwane, the epicentre of the outbreak in South Africa. The World Health Organisation says this is the worst ever recorded outbreak of listerosis.
Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries president Mr Denford Mutashu warns of the danger of the disease at informal markets.
“Government has to put serious measures in place to deal with the illegal supply of goods through smuggling,” he says. “It’s important for Government to be cautious rather than react when there is already an outbreak, because fighting the outbreak is cumbersome and poses many challenges.
“Even though the ban will have a negative impact on the supply of the meat products, we were anticipating the ban and as business we have to comply.”
The outbreak began in January and so far 180 people have succumbed to the infection with infants being the mostly affected in South Africa.
Zimbabwe joined Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi in banning meat imports from South Africa. Secretary for Health and Child Care Dr Gerald Gwinji has assured the nation that everything is under control.
“It’s an issue of food poisoning happening in one specific manufacturing plant. So the issue of other borders isn’t really an issue,” explained Dr Gwinji.
“What we have done as a country is tighten our food surveillance at all border posts. But we are concentrating on Beitbridge Border Post and we have put necessary measures such as Port Health in conjunction with veterinary services to carry out searches and confiscation of suspicious materials and foods.
“We are also educating the public, especially those who go and buy these things, for them not to bring them into the country.”
Listeria is a food-borne disease that thrives in cold meats and is spread by consumption of foods that are contaminated by the bacteria listeria monocytogenes.
“What makes this outbreak significant for us is that we import quite significant food items, particularly cold processed foods from South Africa,” says Dr Gwinji.
Listeriosis bacteria has been traced to a specific company in Polokwane called Enterprise Tag Brands, which specialises in cold processed foods.
“The manufacturing plant of the contaminated foods has been shut down so there’s no risk with established supermarkets to be ordering the food items. The fact that South Africa has recalled specific products means the food items might no longer be on the market,” Dr Gwinji explains.
“We have instructed our border control officers to confiscate, quarantine and send for destruction should food products in questions are found.
“People are worried about us recalling cold meats being sold in our supermarkets. I can assure you that most of the cold meats consumed in Zimbabwe are manufactured locally. And as a country, we haven’t had such challenges before.”
High risk foods include ready-to-eat foods like cooked, cured and fermented meats, sausages, soft cheeses, cold smoked fishery products and dairy products made with unpasteurised milk.
Mr Mutashu says Government is moving in the right direction. “It’s a good idea that Government has imposed a ban until further notice so that we can monitor the situation.
“We’re definitely going to have challenges in terms of supply of some products but what’s important is the supply of the products not at the expense of the nation’s health.”
Sharing food with an infected person can spread the disease. Pregnant women, infants, the elderly and those with suppressed immune systems are also at risk.
Signs and symptoms include diarrhoea, high fever, headache, muscle pain and meningitis among others. The infection can be avoided by practising good hygiene.
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