As South Africa grapples with the world’s worst listeria outbreak, it is small mom-and-pop stores that dot places like the black township of Soweto that are taking a financial hit as customers fear for their lives.
Ntsintsi’s Fun Food’s popular “kota” sandwich – a hollowed-out quarter loaf filled with spicy mango condiment, french fries and a popular ready-to-eat cold meat called polony – has to undergo a makeover after health authorities traced the listeria outbreak to a polony factory.
“We have to change our game. But the problem we’re going to have is affordability – don’t forget French (polony) and viennas (hot dogs) are the cheapest things that you can get,” said Thabang Matomela, manager at Ntsintsi’s.
“But now if we have to reinvent the kota and have a prego (marinated beef) steak, or have even fish in it, although it did have it, which means the price is going to a bit high. Now who’s going to afford it again?”
Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the source of the disease, which has killed 180 people since December last year, was found after pre-school children fell ill after eating polony, which is made from cooked ground meat, similar to American baloney or a cheaper form of Italian mortadella.
Motsoaledi urged South Africans to not eat any processed meat even though the department’s agency ordered a recall of three cold meat products that include polony, prompting a frenzied clearing of shelves by retailers.
The UN World Health Organisation called the outbreak the largest ever recorded globally, after 948 cases were reported since January 2017. Listeria causes flu-like symptoms, nausea, diarrhea and infection of the bloodstream and brain.
Neighbouring states also acted swiftly. Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia banned imports of South African processed meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. Mozambique and Namibia halted imports of the processed meat items and Botswana said it was recalling them. Malawi stepped up screening of South African food imports.
“I’m scared for the kids more than anything. I’m scared to give it to them because I heard that it’s been around for a while, so when I saw it on TV, I realised even more that it’s dangerous,” Tshepiso Mpelane, a concerned parent said.
However, among those who eat it, polony – also a staple in school lunch boxes – is royalty in sandwiches and removing it from the menu would be an assault on the way of life.
“Listeriosis? What’s that?” said Linda Mwansa a 22-year-old mobile phone saleswoman in the Zambian capital Lusaka. “We don’t have such things in Zambia and I am not going to stop eating polony just because there are problems far away in South Africa.”