Listeriosis compounds hardships of struggling Namibians

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By Annines Angula

The banning of South African cold meat products in the Namibian market following the outbreak of listeriosis in the neighbouring country has severely affected the informal business in Namibia, which is the life support of the majority poor.

Namibia, like other countries in the Southern African Development Community region, has banned the importation and sale of processed meat like polony and other ready-to-eat meat products from South Africa after the emergence of the food-borne disease that has killed more than 180 people and afflicted close to a 1,000.

The Southern African country, which imports large volumes of processed food from South Africa, has so far recorded one case of listeriosis. The Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry and the Ministry of Health and Social Services have been on high alert in anticipation of further outbreaks of the disease.

However, the informal sector has taken a hard knock ever since the import ban was instituted last month, which was followed by a countrywide recall of cold meats from the shelves.

Many people in the informal settlements of the Namibian capital, Windhoek, and other major urban centres who cannot find jobs in the formal sector of the economy depend on selling polony, Vienna and Russian sausages, and processed food to feed their families.

But since the emergence of listeriosis, their usual customers are now indiscriminately shunning their products for fear of contracting the disease. Several vendors that The Southern Times spoke to said they normally sell locally-made polony and other cold meats, but customers are now wary.

Hermandus Jonas (16), seated next to his small braai stand in the Goreangab informal settlement north of Windhoek, said the outbreak had badly affected his small business.

Jonas sells grilled Vienna sausages for R2 a piece, which he buys from a local supplier.

“Yes, I have heard about the deadly disease called listeriosis and I am hearing that the disease is only found in products from South Africa. I am also aware that the government has imposed a ban on all ready-to-eat products from South Africa. But it looks like there is some confusion because people here are not buying my meat, as usual, thinking all the food we are selling is from that country,” he said.

“I buy my products at a shop in the northern industrial area, which makes its own polony and sausages. That is why I don’t believe and think that my products can be of any harm to my customers.”

The Angolan immigrant said selling polony and sausages has been prompted by the need to fend for his family. Jonas works for someone and is paid R200 per month.

Various street vendors tell the same story that people are scared of buying polony and they are sometimes called names for selling the “deadly polony”.

Lucas Nandjato (24), who sells loaves of big polony around the city, said the situation has been worsening over the past three weeks.

“My livelihood is under threat. I used to go home with R70 but now people don’t want to buy my polony anymore,” he said, with a weary face.

With all the confusion swirling around over ready-to-eat products, vendors like Jonas and many others who survive on selling polony, Vienna sausages and other processed meats are pleading with the veterinary and health authorities to clear the air because their once thriving businesses are under threat.

“We just want the government to make it clear to the public that our polony is not affecting anyone’s health. The public is so scared to buy our products because they think they will die. Our businesses are no more going forward. Our products are clean,” fumed a middle-aged woman, who sells cold meats at Havana, another informal location in the capital.

She said most of the vendors sourced their products from local manufacturers, including reputable food processor, Hartlief.

Hartlief chief operating officer, Jacqui Bruys, said the company has been producing quality raw and processed meat products for local and international markets for over 70 years.

She said the company had implemented a well-managed food safety management system and assured the public that its products were free from the disease and that their business was not affected by the listeriosis outbreak.

Lucia Nghilifa (24), a store supervisor at Woermann Brock in Goreangab, said the retailer had complied with the directive not to sell South African products but will continue selling locally produced cold meats.

“We cannot guarantee that the polony we are having in the fridges are healthy, but we will keep on selling them because we have received no harm alert about them,” she said, adding that they had returned all the affected products, including 1,600 Vienna sausages worth about R22,384, to the suppliers.

Mamma Fresh, a popular outlet that sells a variety of meat products, including polony, has also assured the public that their products, including locally made polony, were safe, according to shop supervisor Helen Gabes.

“We have not been told by any health inspection officer that our products are poisonous, so we will continue selling to the people,” Gabes, who is Mamma Fresh’s supervisor in Greenwell, another high-density suburb.

The veterinary services department last week reaffirmed import restrictions on cold meats from South Africa such as polony, smoked Russian, Vienna and frankfurter sausages, ham and salamis under Renown, Bokkie, Mielikip and Lifestyle brands. 

These products are produced by Enterprise Foods Polokwane and Enterprise Foods Germiston that are said to be the sources of the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa.

However, Namibian health minister, Dr Bernard Haufiku, recently told The Villager newspaper that local consumers needed not be ignorant and continue to shun Namibian ready-to-eat products saying that these were free from the listeriosis contamination.

With so much information having been communicated in the media about which products are contaminated and vice-versa, the minister said people who were shunning local products were doing so out of ignorance. 

The Namibia Consumer Protection Group has been running a public campaign on social media to inform the public on how to approach products that are in the same group as those with the listeriosis tag. 

Milton Louw, the director of the non-profit organisation that campaigns for customer rights in Namibia, cautioned people that bought ready-to-eat products to tread on the side of caution.

“With the meat products that you’re getting, the best way to do is to cook them above 73 degrees Celsius. 

So even if you have a product and you’re not sure just to be on the safe side, this listeria bacterium gets killed above that range. So it’s -4 degrees in your freezer and over 73 degrees for your cooked product. 

Keep in mind, these are not your canned foods, these are your processed meats,” he strongly advised. 

 

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