The listeriosis outbreak and subsequent removal of products from supermarket shelves has created a heightened sense of panic among South African consumers. One of their concerns is how the bacteria will be contained.
A number of sources have advised consumers not to dispose of their cold meat or processed meat products as they would regular rubbish, because this may result in leaks or the spreading of the bacteria and may be harmful to waste pickers.
As it stands, 180 people have died as a result of the disease.
The Institute for Waste Management South Africa (IWMSA) published a statement in which it indicated that instead of disposing of the infectious food, consumers must rather return it to the store or the manufacturer.
Then begins the process of responsibly disposing of the contaminated products “through thermal treatment or lime-treated trenching at licensed engineered landfills,” according to past president of IWMSA, Professor Suzan Oelofse.
The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has also decided to appoint waste management companies that are capable of handling and disposing of the contaminated food products, to ensure that they no longer pose a risk to human and animal health and to the environment. This is according to DEA spokesperson Albi Modise.
“The facilities that can accept such waste have been informed of the potential call from Enterprise and are ready to carry out this function,” he said via e-mail.
“The World Health Organisation (WHO) was contacted to gain more knowledge of the bacterium itself and the practices worldwide to deal with this kind of outbreak and not for a directive to dispose,” he added.
Managing director of waste management company Averda Never Stop, Johan van den Berg, said the contaminated meat products will have to be treated in the same way as hazardous waste because of the pathogen. He added that hazardous waste or, in this case, infectious waste, is subject to treatment and disposal regulations based on the risks that it is associated with.
According to him, it is not advisable to dispose of infectious waste, but instead it should be destroyed by incineration (burning).
IWMSA’s Professor Oelofse said the product must be incinerated or combusted at temperatures higher than 850 degrees Celsius, otherwise it can be treated with lime and disposed of in a duly authorised landfill site, which is at least 1.5 meters deep and immediately covered.
The operators of the waste facility will receive certification of proof once all materials have been disposed of safely and in accordance with government regulations.
The main problem in this case is the volume of the products that need to be dealt with.
Oelofse said the increased capacity will put pressure on waste facilities to treat the waste products in a responsible way, without compromising regular operations.
“If a waste facility such as an incinerator is already running at or near full capacity, it will require special effort to treat the additional waste effectively and efficiently. It is therefore important that reputable waste companies must be used to treat and dispose of this waste,” she said.
“Specialised services do come at a premium, but human life is worth more,” she added.
Van den Berg concurred with the view that the listerosis-linked waste issue will give rise to issues of capacity at facilities.
“The sheer scale of waste that requires treatment as a result of the outbreak, means that most incineration plants will not have capacity – prolonging the amount of time it will take to get rid of these products,” he said.
As a result of this, Van den Berg said the DEA has allowed the waste to be disposed of in a Class A landfill site.
“These facilities are highly specialised and accustomed to safely dealing with a number of harmful substances. This allowance will significantly contribute to the safe and speedy removal of listeria-contaminated products,” he added.
Since these hazardous landfill sites are dangerous, they are on secure premises to ensure no waste-pickers can access them. They are also monitored for 30 years following closure to ensure that no significant environmental consequences arise.
The two affected food manufacturers, RCL Foods and Tiger Brands, were instructed to recall meat products (polony, viennas, cold meat and sausages) off retailer shelves, after traces of the bacteria were found in their products.
Tiger Brands told Moneyweb that it could not quantify how many of its products have been recalled, however, those that have been “safely” recalled will be handled in line with National Consumer Commission guidelines.
RCL Foods has also indicated that it has completed most of the recall of its Rainbow polony stock from trade and that a further investigation of its facilities is underway.
The DEA is yet to approve the waste management methods used by waste management companies concerned. According to Van den Berg, the processing of waste will only begin once these methods are accepted and approved.