Food Control Agency; Food & Nutrition Security Implementation Plan; Listeriosis; Poultry Industry; Agricultural Productivity

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

16 October 2018
Chairperson: Ms M Semenya (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was given an update by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) on the recent listeriosis outbreak in the country, and the steps that had been introduced to provide the oversight, monitoring and evaluation required to manage any outbreaks in the future. The Department also reported on the impact of the drought on the agricultural economy since the beginning of last year.

The Committee heard how a listeria Incident Management Team, made up of local and international health authorities and other stakeholders, had collaborated to control and end the outbreak, and had implemented systems to prevent future outbreaks. The critical component had been surveillance and laboratory capacity to test all the samples in dealing with the outbreak. There had also been a review of legislation, as the fragmentation of legislation needed to be amended. Central communication was required to deal with stakeholder engagement. Listeriosis had now been declared a notifiable disease.

The Members wanted to be assured that the listeriosis outbreak was indeed over and that people may begin to eat processed meat. They asked about the status of the facilities that had been closed down during the outbreak.

The DAFF described the performance of the agricultural sector after the low production recorded in 2016, and although the Western Cape had lagged behind because of the protracted drought, and late planting had delayed harvesting, the improved water situation had had a positive effect on the gross domestic product (GDP). However, farmers were hesitant about investing in infrastructure because of uncertainty over the implications of the government’s land expropriation without compensation policy.

Members asked when the expropriation policy would be clarified, how input costs like fuel, fertilisers and stock feed could be reduced, and what the government’s plans were to assist black farmers who were given land, to acquire the infrastructure to succeed. Agriculture had long been the domain of black women, but they were being impacted by inequality within the sector. There was also concern that local farmworkers were losing their jobs at the expense of foreigners

Meeting report

Management of Listeria outbreak, and preventive measures

Dr Mphane Molefe, Director: Veterinary Public Health, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and member of the team that managed the recent Listeriosis outbreak, made the presentation on behalf of the other stakeholders that were involved. He said it had been a multi-faceted approach that had included the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department of Health (DoH). The team was led by the NICD, the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS), DAFF Veterinary Public Health, the DTI through the National Consumer Commission (NCC) and the National Regulatory Board for Compulsory Specifications, provincial and urban health authorities, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Outbreak Alert Response Network (GOARN), and the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, USA.

The activities of the Listeria Incident Management Team (IMT) were aimed to control and end the outbreak and put systems in place to prevent the disease recurring in future. It was about multi-sector coordination. The critical component was surveillance, and there had to be laboratory capacity to deal with the outbreak. The monitoring aspect had to be strengthened and different legislation was needed to achieve the outcome desired. Communication was coordinated, so that all the units of the team were delivering a uniform message.

The team was led by the NICD and co-managed by the WHO. Communication was controlled by the National Department of Health, with each department from each unit having a communication team. Partner coordination was critical in this regard, as well as technical expertise, operational support and logistics, and finance and administration.

A process had begun on 9 April with phase 1, but prior to that there had been lots of activity. However, the outbreak was elevated to stage 2 and stage 3, and the situation needed more intervention and stakeholder communication until 31 August. It had been a three-month project to control the outbreak, with the World Health Organisation assisting the department in all areas. There had been information dissemination and legislation review, which was ongoing, and engagement with Tiger Brands and Rainbow Chicken Ltd (RCL), which had been identified as sources of the outbreak. Risk assessment and prevention and control conducted by a multi-sectoral team and information sequencing was also done. Capacity building was conducted by the National Health Laboratory, and there were various activities taking place up until August 2018.

A graph on the surveillance findings depicted the upward trend from early last year, peaking in November/December. A lot of measures had been put in place, and the number of infections started to decline until it reached the pre-outbreak level by April.

Dr Molefe pointed out that since 2013, listeriosis had always been there, which was something that needed to clarified. Last year it had spiked and been declared as an outbreak, but now the country was at pre-outbreak levels, and it could be confirmed that the outbreak was over.

He said listeriosis was a notifiable disease, and the NICD had implemented a system to detect outbreaks early. All those who tested positive have to undergo whole genome sequencing (WGS) and be interviewed to obtain an in-depth food consumption history. All ‘clusters of cases’ -- those with similar/identical WGS findings -- would be investigated early to identify affected foodstuffs and take action. The tests can tell if two different listeriosis cases were not from the same outbreak source or were from different areas. For example, the one in melons in Australia was not related to the one in South Africa.

The NICD and DOH was dealing with interventions involving any suspicious cases, and all clusters of cases would be investigated early as it was one of the lessons learnt. This approach had been used in the US and France with successful results. Regarding laboratory capacity, the NHLS infection control laboratory had developed a strategy to streamline and focus environmental testing, and had identified at risk facilities. New test methods were being developed and validated to accurately identify listeria monocyto in products. Unfortunately, the cost of running WGS testing was restrictive, as there were only two machines available in the country, so more centres will be needed to assist in future. Over 2 000 environmental and food specimens had been tested to determine the situations was at the pre-outbreak level.

Monitoring and evaluation was also done mainly by the team of the DoH, with its environment and health unit, the SA Military health services, the DAFF, and the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS). Training material had been developed, with which 900 officials in food safety had been trained to conduct inspections, collect samples, handle safely and get results. This had been done across the country and training was ongoing.

Dr Molefe said all facilities that produced ready to eat processed meat products had been visited. It was important to note that listeriosis was found in ready to eat processed meat products, and some were good and some were poor, which categorised them at different risk levels. The imported products were also monitored, and testing of mechanically deboned meat had been tested for listeriosis, but there had been no positive linkage.

The Tiger Brands facility in Polokwane was visited in April by the team from the IMT, and the factory was still closed. It was being re-built according to recommendations by the NICD and will remain closed until there are negative results. The Germiston facility had been visited and had tested negative, so it had been re-opened. The team was still doing sampling of 178 shops and tests had been negative, but Germiston was not yet exporting.

Rainbow Chicken was closed on 5 March 2018 by the Capricorn Municipality. Transparent engagement had taken place, and samples were shared among the stakeholders, but repeat sampling showed no listeria there, and Rainbow Chicken Ltd has been allowed to operate.

It respect of recourse, the products implicated had been recalled, both locally and those earmarked for export.  The National Consumer Commission, the Department of Environmental Affairs and the DAFF had recalled those products earmarked for neighbouring countries.  A total of 5 812 tons of affected produce stored at City Deep in Johannesburg had been destroyed by the end of August, and the target date for the destruction of all products was the end of October.

Food safety legislation was an important of concern and needed to be reviewed. Regulations had been revised and there was now an obligation for all ready-to-eat meat producers to be Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) certified. Revised hygiene regulations had been published, and draft microbiological regulations had been circulated to a technical working group. The NRCS had published compulsory specifications on ready-to-eat meat for public comment. The terms of reference for technical experts had been advertised, and there was ongoing consultation with the industry regarding standardised testing for listeria. There was ultimately a need to set standards that were well communicated. The inputs would be incorporated in the revised guidelines. A training team would train all environmental practitioners in the new guidelines, and this function could even be outsourced.

Dr M Molefe also said that risk communication had been identified as a key element in addressing the panic arising from the spike of the disease. Not all had been prepared for the outbreak, so a decision had been taken to train health promoters without compromising information and communication on food control in all nine provinces.  There was a website www.listeriosis.org, and the NICD also had a website that was constantly updating health promotion.  The dissemination of literature, by provinces and districts was targeted at helping ‘at-risk’ persons to avoid implicated products. There was also the ongoing communication from the Minister of Health emphasising WHO’s five key areas when dealing with food, including washing hands. September was World Environmental Health Month, and there had been a seminar in Bloemfontein where food safety was the key issue.

Dr Molefe said the WHO had declared outbreak over based on levels seen since the implicated products had been pulled from the market, and no other sources of new outbreaks had been identified thus far. Environmental health practitioners and veterinary health professionals had been trained and food safety legislation was under review to identify any gaps. There would be communication with the public to provide any information that is required.

Discussion

Mr N Paulsen (EFF asked about the outbreak requiring the assistance of global bodies, and whether it was a standard practice to get the World Health Organisation, or if it was a question of capacity. What guarantee was there that there would not be similar diseases where we would react instead of preventing it to start with? The other concern was that the outbreak had put a strain on the healthcare sector, and he was concerned as to whether sanctions had been imposed on Tiger Brands and Rainbow Chicken so that they could be taught to take the public interest seriously.

Ms A Steyn (DA) asked at what stage the Department had responded to the listeriosis outbreak, and what plans had been in place, the spike of the deadly disease could already be seen. Did some alarm bells ring somewhere? Was testing being tested for other diseases, as South Africa had a high mortality rate? On the closing of the factory, what norms and standards were being applied to Enterprise Polokwane, as South African legislation was not yet complete? Was the food from the shelves contaminated? Who was monitoring the situation? Was the testing linked to another country, or was SA still doing it internally? She recalled that health practitioners had been told they were not testing chicken at the border – was this the case? What impact had this disease had on the pork industry and the agricultural industry generally when there had been a ban on all processed foods?

Ms G Tolashe (ANC) asked when the Department would be testing other products and if there were other measures to test in future to prevent an outbreak.

The Chairperson commented that the Minister would make sure that the environmental practitioners would be increased, even if they were under the municipalities, as it was at the local government level that government lacked capacity. She appreciated that all the partners were participating in addressing the outbreaks. As a follow up question to Ms Steyn, she asked for an assurance that risk analysis would be done at new establishments selling processed meat products. Was the IMT going to continue doing ongoing work from all angles to look at measures to be put in place for any eventuality that may happen? She also noted that the Committee had been waiting  for two years for safety control agents to address food safety in the country, and a food control agency had not yet been established.

DAFF’s response

Dr Molefe addressed the country’s interaction with the World Health Organisation, saying that even the US received assistance from the WHO. There were various outbreaks around the world and they advised countries as international experts, and assisted developing states. The lesson learnt from outbreak was on early detection and collaboration, and this had broken the silo mentality -- even the army had been involved. The DoH had learnt to do more inspections of facilities and create new capacity, and training on food safety was required for all companies. Regarding the sanctions, there was a lawsuit currently ongoing, and the National Consumer Commission had the authority to issue fines. People had been encouraged to do what was legally right in sanctioning. The sanction allowed in the legislation was to close the facilities, and then other bodies may take it further.

Whether the Department could have detected the outbreak early, he said it took doctors from Chris Hani Baragwanath doing their own analysis to realise it was an outbreak. It was not notifiable, so the Department could not detect it then, but it could now and this work was ongoing. It would not be limited to listeriosis, as there was still salmonella and other diseases. The incident management team had been disbanded, but the three departments continued to work together and were doing the legislation review. All draft standards produced were discussed by the team on a regular basis, and they had to deal with all food safety related issues.

The Department of Environmental Affairs was monitoring the recalled products, and products from retail had gone to City Deep for destruction. It was not known where the products from kitchens ended up, but there was no scientific evidence of those products being harmful. It was still a mystery as to how listeriosis ended up in South Africa. The WHO had advised the Department to apply measures to ensure it did not return. and The WHO realised that its Codex guidelines placed no limit on raw meat, as that product would still be subjected to heat when being cooked, but the Department still needed to be on the lookout so that when it came, it could be dealt with.

The letter to the port officials had specifically been for testing US meat. When the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) negotiations were concluded, the Department of Health had an additional role to play in testing imported products; however the Department of Agriculture had still continued doing testing when the letter was issued to withdraw surveillance at ports. The department was still waiting for results of the study being conducted by the Department of Trade and Industry on the impact of the disease on the economy.

Dr Molefe said that all new establishments needed to comply and be certified with the Hygiene Assessment Practical Control Point. They had to be able to identify the hazard themselves and put measures in place, and the government would assess their in-house system to make sure there were no hazardous products. Listeriosis and salmonella should be part of the HACCP analysis. Municipalities had assured the Department they would do their best in monitoring new establishments operating within their areas of jurisdiction. On the capacity of environmental practitioners, he said he would revert back to the Committee on that. The team was still continuing with the work, and there was a legislative review being done. There was an advert for a lawyer to look at all legislation and conduct an analysis to structure the work of the food safety agencies.

Mr N Capa (ANC) wanted to know whether they were still continuing to investigate the source of the outbreak. It seemed like the DAFF was not sure whether to continue investigating the source of the listeria outbreak, but finding out would assist in preventing future diseases.

Dr Molefe clarified that investigating the source still continued through surveillance, and when it was found it would make future detection easier. However, the Enterprise source could have been in the facility years ago and been hiding until it came out. The municipalities and other stakeholders were still seeking the answer through surveillance.

Ms Steyn mentioned that listeriosis could mutate over time, so were they testing specifically for the ST6 strain? Would there be another campaign to ensure that people were more conscious of the food types that are eaten among and within communities?

Dr Molefe responded that according to experts, ST6 could not be another ST type, as there were various ST types, and testing would tell one which type of listeria it was. However, any listeria had the potential to make people sick, and even with non-ST6 listeria one still needed to react in terms of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectant Act. There should be no contaminants in ready-to-eat products. They were working with industry to deal with pathogens while they were still on the farms, including vaccination, and there was less salmonella on skins. Engagement with industry was still ongoing.

The Chairperson emphasised that the work in addressing listeria, and any outbreak that might come, should not stop. The government needed to assist in building capacity and also monitor informal markets, as the majority of people got their food from there. This presentation should be shared with other ministries and the lessons learnt would make the government more responsive.

DAFF quarterly performance report  

Ms Ellen Matsei, Director: Statistics and Economic Analysis, DAFF, took the Committee through the background of the past 18 months regarding agricultural production after the low production in 2016. The Western Cape drought had dragged on, but the water situation had improved. The late harvests had also impacted on economic productivity, particularly maize. Among the biggest drivers of the agricultural economy were maize and sunflowers. There was a lower outlook for maize this year as the pace was slower because of the late harvest, and some of the stock was still in the silos.

Some of the crops affected by drought in the Western Cape, like wine grapes and fruit, had impacted on export earnings, as any slight decline had a significant effect. The fruit and vegetables produced in the province had Cape had taken a serious knock, and the citrus numbers were not too positive. The cattle and poultry sectors were stable in production. There had been lots of slaughtering of cattle during the drought, but farmers had started acquiring more livestock stock after the drought. The gross income per agricultural sub-sector had been impacted mainly because of the drought, and the supply of meat was improving.
Forestry and fisheries were doing well. The imports of forestry had increased because after the drought trees had been felled and production was not at an optimum level. SA was importing more from Botswana and Swaziland.

Ms A Steyn (DA) commented that the presentation did not follow sequence, and some slides were missing.

The Chairperson asked the DAFF to send the latest presentation to the Committee Members.

Ms Matsei referred to the trade map, and said consumers were going for imported tinned fish, which createf room for exporting more. Most of the commodities were consumed locally in the market, and most of the fish were consumed domestically. There was a need for greater investment in more expensive fish like perlemoen. The farmers’ intentions to invest in their physical areas should be supported. An indicator of how farmers perceived environment they were operating in, showed it was just below the 50-point “neutral” mark, which pointed to a lack of opportunities and issues of policy uncertainty, and a reluctance to make capital investments. Overall, farmers feel lot of policy uncertainty and wish to resolve the land without expropriation issue. The 60-point mark could be achieved in this regard, as good markets were opening up and the current government was open to a discussion on a stimulus package. They just needed a clear policy direction on land expropriation.

Most of the challenges were related to farmers acquiring more loans.  The providers of finance believed farmers would reap more in the coming years, but there was always risk.  Production loans were not sustainable, and the main thing was whether physical investment was being made. Production loans come and go within the space of a year as one was paying for fertilisers. The loans required were those for physical investment in the land.

The main input costs were farm feeds, which were the biggest cost drivers for chicken feed and livestock feed. Farmers had to import lots of farm feeds during times of drought, and fertiliser and fuel were also major cost drivers, so they should look at investing in production facilities to provide, for example, soya beans. The trade balance was starting to be positive, heading towards the surplus side, as it was produced locally and farmers were buying them locally. There was a need to look at alternative energy such as bio-fuels to reduce costs for farmers to produce domestically.

The environment should allow farmers to be profitable, as it had an impact on the economy. The physical investment and net farm income was a healthy picture, given other areas of investment, as once infrastructure was established it would have an impact on how successful the business was. However the policy uncertainty still has an influence on how farmers invest in infrastructure.

There were 843 000 people employed in this sector, and about two-thirds were in horticulture. In the past 12 months, the biggest lost has been around 20 000 because of seasonal jobs. Most harvesting time employment increases in the normal season, and with no droughts jobs are more available. The Department was monitoring the job losses.

It was still monitoring the dam levels across the country, and some provinces are almost at 100%. The Northern Cape and Western Cape were at 66%. The confidence index was determined by the dam levels, and these were the elements in play in terms of the economy.

Discussion

Mr Capa asked whether “production levels” and “productivity” were inter-changeable terms. Was there clarity on land expropriation without compensation? Also, what was the source of information about expropriation without compensation? There were many subsistence farmers that did not have resources -- what was being done about that? The rise in fuel costs definitely affected farmers who may not have resources.

Ms Steyn asked about the profitability of the farming business. Had an analysis been done on what had caused the main cost drivers to escalate, as from 2007 there had been a drastic increase? Referring to expenditure on intermediate goods and services, she wanted to know about farm services, and exactly what they are. Was South Africa trying to get total value for its exports? How would the fuel price increase affect the farmers? Would it be possible to make a prediction of how profitable it would be if farmers moved into other commodities?

Ms T Tongwane (ANC) wanted to know more about the policy uncertainty concern of the DAFF, as articulated by the farmers on the question of expropriation without compensation. The main concern had been the policy issue, but what had been the cause of slow production in previous years? She asked about why women were not employed in large numbers in the agriculture sector, as historically it had been a women’s sector. An analysis of the sector was needed, as the economy could not continue to undermine the role of women in the sector, and the inequalities needed to be depicted.

The Chairperson weighed in on the cost drivers of farming being the feed, but there were no reasons as to why maize production had declined. The second issue was the loss of land to other development programmes within provinces, as the Department of Agriculture needed to protect the land. On land expropriation without compensation, she commented that the effects of that decision had not yet been made. The presentation had not referred to the land reform programme, and as black farmers did not have infrastructure when they were given farms, it was concerning that this had not been mentioned. Analysis had to reflect the needs of the farmers. The decision of Section 25 should not affect the production of farming products. There needed to be a more thorough an honest analysis so that proper decisions could be taken. The Department needed to provide more research-based analysis.

She expressed concern about the eviction of farm workers, as South Africans were being replaced by foreign nationals. Was the DAFF including the Department of Labour in its statistics?

DAFF’s response

Ms Matsei responded on land expropriation without compensation, and apologised for being a bit confusing, but emphasised that production was taking place. However, farmers were cautious about what would happen next, and that was what the confidence index was telling the Committee. Production was taking place and a bumper crop was expected at harvesting season. The reason for the delay was the late planting that took place in October 2017, and the late rain had resulted in the figures being reflected as they were.

She said there could be a reason why farmers’ investments in infrastructure were low, and said that the analysis was based on farmers being cautious and waiting to see where the political decision would be going.

The reason for no proper accounting and statistics in the analysis was because the data on smallholder farmers was still lagging behind. That work was and continuing hopefully by September 2020, there would be feedback in that regard.

The issues related to the eviction of farm workers and being replaced by foreign nationals depended on a survey of agricultural employment. A study on agricultural activities, and the number of foreign nationals working on various farms, was required

Regarding the involvement of women, most rural women were employed on communal land, so the Department needed to collect statistics on communal land.

Regarding the increase in input costs since 2007 and 2008, she said the rand had depreciated farmers had to take out extra loans to maintain high production and deliver an economic output. Fuel prices were also
influenced by the exchange rate, so they could hamper the growth of the farming business. The exchange rate was difficult to predict, but politics may have an influence on the oil price. The physical infrastructure which sustained long term growth was hampered by the lack of clarity on expropriation without compensation.

Ms Steyn said that she was aware of the global economic crisis, but there must be other factors that had contributed to the increase of costs from 2007. How could this be changed around? If people did not invest, there would be another crisis -- how could one avoid this situation?

Ms Heidi Phahlane, Director: Statistics, DAFF, responded that agriculture was a dual economy, and most of the analysis was on the economic sector. She reminded Members that they were moving from a sector that was highly subsidised and protected, but from 2007 the farmers had become liberal in entering the free market and thereby diversifying in agriculture. Therefore one would see escalating costs of debts, and maintenance costs would not be low.

Mr Capa said that the petrol price would always affect productivity, but he would like to be convinced otherwise.

Ms E Matsei said if South Africa had its own oil production initiatives, then it could produce bio-fuel using sorgums to make it easy for farmers to have lower fuel costs, but this could be discussed in detail further.

Ms Steyn referred to the decrease in the output of the ostrich industry, and asked where the country was with avian influenza and the opening up of exports?

Dr Mpho Maja, Director: Animal Health, DAFF said that the outbreak of avian influenza had subsided and there had been no reported cases in poultry in over six months, except a for a poultry house in Gauteng in March/April 2018. Unfortunately, outbreaks in the ostrich sector still occurred, so an end to the outbreak could not be declared. However, the export of feathers and skins was not affected as the markets that accept those products were not as strict as the meat importers.

The meeting was adjourned.
 

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