SOUTH AFRICA – In a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Pretoria (UP), South African scientists have raised alarm bells over the presence of Listeria in the beef sector, sparking fears of a potential outbreak.

The research, spanning from 2019 to 2020, examined the prevalence of Listeria monocytogenes in beef and beef products at various stages of production and distribution in the Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and North West provinces.

The study’s findings were disconcerting, revealing that 4.6% of chilled carcasses sampled at seven abattoirs in Gauteng tested positive for Listeria.

This concerning statistic indicated that contaminated beef could easily find its way into the food chain through retail outlets in the province, posing a significant public health risk.

The research was financially supported by Red Meat Research and Development South Africa and was prompted by the devastating 2017-2018 listeriosis outbreak that saw 1,065 confirmed cases and 218 fatalities.

According to Dr. Rebone Moerane, the head of UP’s Department of Production Animal Studies and a member of the research team, contamination has the ability to occur at various points in the food production chain, including equipment, raw product handling, and post-processing settings.

Dr. Moerane further explained that contamination during slaughter can lead to tainted meat and meat products, heightening the risk to consumers.

Researchers from the University of Pretoria also investigated the prevalence of Listeria in cattle, silage, feeds, and water on farms across the three provinces, as well as in slaughtered cattle and carcasses at processing plants and beef products at retail.

While the risk of exposure to listeriosis for cattle on farms was found to be minimal, the detection of contaminated chilled carcasses at Gauteng abattoirs and the prevalence of Listeria in beef products at retail outlets are alarming.

The study reported Listeria prevalence rates of 6%, 8.3%, and 9.3% in beef and beef products sampled in North West, Mpumalanga, and Gauteng, respectively.

Additionally, cold beef and beef products showed Listeria rates of 4.3%, 11%, and 9.3%, respectively.

Dr. Moerane expressed concerns over the presence of Listeria in widely consumed RTE items like polony and biltong, emphasizing the increased risk of human exposure to the pathogen.

In light of these findings, the scientists have urged the government and industry stakeholders to take immediate action by implementing stringent food safety measures at abattoirs and processing plants to reduce contamination risks and prevent another listeriosis outbreak.

They also recommended follow-up studies on moist biltong, a popular South African snack, to assess its potential to support the growth of Listeria and evaluate the risk it poses to consumers.

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