What You Need to Know About the World’s Worst-Ever Listeria Outbreak

Outside Tiger Brands’ Germiston plant. Photo: Foto24/Getty Images

Health authorities have linked a South African food company’s bologna to a world-historically bad listeria outbreak that’s devastated the region and killed hundreds. The company, Tiger Brands, is the continent’s largest packaged-foods manufacturer, and its products run the gamut from oatmeal and energy drinks to canned tuna fish and Tinkies. But a batch of contaminated meat has now bred panic (not only in South Africa, but also in Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana, and Zambia), sending supermarkets into a shelf-clearing frenzy. It is, in short, one of the deadliest foodborne-illness outbreaks ever. Here’s what you need to know:

• The outbreak has reportedly killed 180 people in the last year, and sickened nearly 1,000. The U.N. calls it the largest listeria outbreak ever recorded.

• Obvious enormity notwithstanding, it took South Africa until Sunday to figure out the cause. Officials blame this delay on the meat-processing industry: “It is not that we are incompetent, or that we have inadequate resources,” one official tells Reuters; it’s that the industry “was not cooperating for months” and “did not bring the samples as requested.”

• According to the government, the cause is a contaminated bologna-ish food product called “polony.” Authorities traced the tainted items to two manufacturing facilities run by Tiger’s processed-meat arm, Enterprise Food. (Enterprise’s motto: “Don’t compromise!”)

• Many supermarkets made a point to remove more than just Enterprise’s polony: Bacon, sausage, and other processed meats are reportedly MIA now as well. Stores have been inundated with angry customers demanding refunds, and advocates for the homeless are asking people to have products incinerated, so no one can pick a package out of the trash.

• People are ticked, but have kept their humor about it. The hashtag #AddPolonyToARapLine was trending yesterday.

• Polony is also obviously popular in school lunches, and children — especially those with weakened immune systems — are at a higher risk of getting listeriosis. Parents tell media that their trust in Enterprise is now “lost,” adding that their kids should expect PB&J lunches for the time being.

• Tiger Brands initially responded by saying that there’s “no link” between its products and that particular strain of listeria, but yesterday it issued a blanket recall anyway of every chilled processed meat Enterprise makes. In a statement, the company says it’s “extremely concerned” and “want to find the source or sources of Listeriosis, together with government.”

What You Need to Know About World’s Worst Listeria Outbreak