Listeriosis: school lunch box woes

My son eats well but he is a fussy eater. He loves home-cooked meals – pastas, seafood, vegetable and meat curries. When it comes to eating away from home and especially from his school lunch box, he prefers simpler, easy to eat sandwiches and fruit. In Grade R, he took peanut butter sandwiches everyday. I tried to introduce other options, but no such luck. Last year I was successful in getting him to at least take a cheese sandwich now and again. This year, we made significant headway with cold meat sandwiches and chicken viennas twice a week.
All that changed on Sunday with the major announcement on the food borne disease listeriosis which has sadly claimed 180 lives in South Africa.
If you have missed it, here are the details from
Polony from the Enterprise factory in Polokwane, Limpopo, has been fingered as the culprit behind the Listeriosis outbreak in the country.
“The source of the present outbreak can be confirmed to be the Enterprise food production facility in Polokwane,” said Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on Sunday.
Environmental Health Practitioners (EHPs), together with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), and officials from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) had visited the food production site in Polokwane.
Results from this factory became available at midnight, prompting the Health Minister to hold an urgent media briefing in which he informed the public to avoid all processed meat products immediately.
“While we know that polony is definitely implicated, there is a risk of cross-contamination of other ready-to-eat processed meat products, either at production, distribution or retail. We advise members of the public to avoid all processed meat products that are sold as ready-to-eat,” said the Minister.
Processed meat products such as polony, viennas, russians, frankfurters, sausages and cold meat products were listed as no go zones by the Minister.
The cause of the outbreak strain ST6 was confirmed in 16 environmental samples collected from the Enterprise facility.
In addition to the Polokwane facility, another Enterprise facility located in Germiston, Gauteng, tested positive for Listeria but it is yet to be confirmed if it is the same ST6 strain.
While another facility, known as the Rainbow Chicken Limited (RCL), tested positive for Listeria, samples from this facility are not same strain that is causing the outbreak.
“Such contamination of ready-to-eat processed meat products constitutes a health risk. Also, over 10% of environmental samples collected by the EHPs at this facility have tested positive for L. monocytogenes,” said the Minister.
With this in mind, the Health Department issued a recall of these cold meat products for Enterprise and RCL.
“The National Consumer Commission has, in terms of Section 60(2) of the Consumer Protection Act, this morning issued manufacturers concerned with safety recall notices,” said Minister Motsoaledi.
Compliance notices will also be issued to facilities in terms of the National Health Act.
The Health Minister reiterated his call for high risk people such as pregnant women, very young infants, elderly persons and anyone with a weakened immune system due to HIV and cancer to completely avoid all processed meats.
Food safety rules
Members of the public have been reminded that now is not the time to slack on their food safety precautions but rather a time to strengthen those habits.
“The recall of these products does not mean that members of the public must now relax and stop following food safety rules,” said Minister Motsoaledi.
The food safety rules include:
Wash your hands before handling food or when coming back from the bathroom.
Cook food thoroughly.
Separate raw food from cooked food.
Store food at an appropriate temperature.
Wash uncooked food with clean running water.
Only use pasteurized or boiled milk products.
World Health Organisation (WHO) country representative, Rufaro Chitaro confirmed that the Australian Listeriosis outbreak was caused by a different strain from the South African one.
“Australia has since last month seen 15 cases of Listeriosis, resulting in three fatalities caused by what is known as a rock melon. There is no evidence that these melons are exported to South Africa. The Australian strain is caused by ST240,” said Chitaro.
Gauteng is still leading the pack with the number of Listeriosis cases at 60%, followed by 13% in the Western Cape and 7% in KwaZulu-Natal and others sporadically spread out across the country.
NICD Head Juno Thomas said the public can use bleach to disinfect and thoroughly clean their fridges to avoid contamination.
Members of the public can visit the National Health Laboratory Services and Health Department websites on how to effectively clean their homes. –
In a matter of hours, stores began recalling products and offering customers refunds for products already purchased. That’s enough to send mums, dad, guardians and care givers, who generally panic when it comes to anything involving their children, into emotional overdrive. I wondered… should I feel guilty? I convinced my son it was good for him, and now….?
I sat him down and gently explained in simple terms why he could not take chicken viennas for lunch. He understood that there are germs in the viennas and it will be some time before they are safe to eat. Once again, his school teachers did a brilliant job of re-inforcing the message.
Whether I will ever be able to trust our food manufacturers again and allow them back into my child’s lunchbox remains a touchy area.
Then, it dawned on me… that I was probably not alone; that there are millions of South Africans grappling with these questions. I got in touch with Claire McHugh, a registered dietitian with a special interest in paediatrics, who gladly answered my questions on short notice.
Anyone who has a child or takes care of one is in panic mode. Many are taking to social media to find alternate lunch box ideas for their children. What would you suggest?
Sandwich fillings like cheese, tinned fish and peanut butter would be suitable. With that, obviously include well rinsed fruit and vegetable.
There has always been this debate about whether or not cold meat, viennas or polony are in fact healthy for children. Please could you set the record straight.
Processed foods are high in fat, salt, additives and preservatives… they should therefore be consumed in moderation.
With this outbreak of listeriosis then, should the above food items be permanently off the lunch box list or would they still be advisable once the Health Department informs the public that they are safe to consume?
As long as the foods are cooked and heated through properly, the listeria should be killed which would make the food safe.
Once cleared, when including these foods ensure to use them in their sell by date, keep well refrigerated and if in a lunch box keep it cool (eg use a cooler box)
How do you communicate with your child to inform them why they cannot have their lunch box favourites for now?
Explain that there is a risk that there is a germ in those foods that can make you very sick and until the officials are sure it’s safe, it’s better not to have the food.
Phew! So at least I was doing a few things correctly. And yes, we all try to do what’s best for our children. In this case, we can’t be blamed. As the brands and government deal with the aftermath of Sunday’s major announcement, all we can do is focus on keeping those lunch boxes healthy for our children.
If you would like to get in touch with Claire McHugh, visit

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