Listeriosis: A Public Health Response

The Municipal Health and Environmental Services Section, which forms part of the Department Community Services at Eden District Municipality (Eden DM), is responsible for ensuring that any food product sold (produced in the Eden District or imported), is safe and fit for human consumption.

Food safety involves the following:

  • Monitoring and evaluation of food premises and vehicles used for the transportation of food to ensure compliance with relevant legislation.
  • Sampling and analyses of  food products
  • Presenting Health and Hygiene education sessions in the formal and informal food sectors, as well as to the general public

Eden DM regards food safety as a high priority; therefore any food-borne disease outbreak is taken very seriously. The outbreak of Listeriosis in South Africa has prompted the Municipal Health Department to increase monitoring and evaluation of food premises, as well as our sampling programmes.

What is Listeriosis? 

Listeriosis is a bacterial disease which is caused by Listeria Monocytogenes. It is commonly found in soil, water and contaminated food sources.

According to the National Institute for Communicable Disease (NICD), 365 cases of Listeriosis were documented between January and October 2017 in South Africa. The NICD report indicated that newborns (babies under the age of 28 days) were the most affected group, but that most of the cases occurred in adults 25 years and older. 

Who are at risk? 

Pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with underlying immunocompromising conditions such as HIV, diabetes, cancer and chronic liver or kidney disease are the population most susceptible to Listeria Monocytogenes infections. 

How can Listeriosis be transmitted? 

The risk of infection increases with the consumption of contaminated food products such as raw or unpasteurised milk and soft cheeses, vegetables, processed foods, ready-to-eat meats and smoked fish products. 

What are the symptoms related to Listeriosis? 

When contaminated food products are consumed, the following symptoms may present itself, namely; fever, myalgia, malaise and sometimes nausea and diarrhoea. For those populations most at risk, the spread of infections can cause meningitis. 

Can Listeriosis be treated? 

Gastroenteritis associated with Listeriosis infection does not usually require treatment, but when diarrhoea is severe, it is best to seek medical assistance. Severe gastroenteritis can cause dehydration, which can be very dangerous, especially for babies. 

Meningitis or septicaemia due to Listeria infections can be life-threatening, but prompt treatment with the correct antibiotics can save lives. Therefore it is advised that if any individual, especially newborns or those with immunocompromised conditions exhibit/show any of the symptoms mentioned above, seek medical assistance. 

Can Listeriosis be prevented? 

It is important to remember that prevention is always better than cure, but only if the proper preventative steps are taken. Listeria is destroyed by conventional cooking, so freshly cooked foods are safe to eat. Listeria is one of those bacteria that can grow in refrigerated foods already contaminated; therefore it is helpful to ensure that the temperature setting of your fridge is kept below 4°C and the deep freeze below – 18°C. 

If you suspect that you or any member of your family are at high risk to listeriosis it is best to avoid the following food products, namely:

  • Raw or unpasteurised milk, or any products made from unpasteurised milk;
  • Soft cheeses (e.g. feta, goat, Brie);
  • Foods from delicatessen counters (e.g. prepared salads, cold meats) that have not been heated/reheated adequately;
  • Refrigerated pâtés, 

The following hygiene practices can be followed to reduce the risk of listeria infection as well as other food-borne illnesses. 

  • Thaw ready-to-eat frozen foods in the fridge or microwave. Do not thaw food at room temperature
  • Separate raw and cooked food products to prevent cross-contamination (Always pack pre-cooked or cooked food products on the top shelves in the fridge and raw products on the lower shelves)
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and clean water before the preparation of food.
  • Wash cutting boards and knives after handling raw food to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Thoroughly cook raw food, especially meat products.
  • Keep cooked food products at 65°C or above and cold food products at or below 5°C.
  • Cooked foods must not be stored at/ cooled down at room temp, rather store in a fridge.
  • Thoroughly reheat food until steaming hot
  • Avoid the use of unpasteurised milk.
  • Do not buy or eat food products, especially refrigerated foods that are past their ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates.
  • If you buy ready-to-eat, hot foods, make sure it’s served steaming hot.
  • It is best to avoid salad bars (pre-prepared salads) in restaurants, supermarkets or delicatessens. 

Immunocompromised: means that your immune system is impaired or weakened by drugs or an illness.

Myalgia, is pain in a muscle or a group of muscles.

Malaise, is a general feeling of discomfort or unease whose exact cause is difficult to identify.

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