In bad taste: SA’s spate of food contaminations

Consumers have become all too familiar with product recalls in recent months issued by some of South Africa’s best-loved food brands. The health and repuational fallout aside, these incidents highlight typical failings in quality control.

Thankfully, not every incident of food contamination kills, or grabs the headlines like listeriosis did from the end of 2017 to 2018 and again recently, but failures in quality remain a common and increasingly worrisome phenomenon in food production.

The growing roll-call of recalls makes grim reading: in September, a major producer issued a voluntary recall of batches of its popular carbonated fruit drinks after it detected the presence of a toxin “above the permitted tolerance”. Shortly afterwards, another producer had to recall apple juice products after it was discovered that a limited quantity of the juice concentrate supplied to them contained elevated levels of the same toxin.

More recently, the same food producer had to recall batches of its peanuts and raisins and cashew nut products after “low-level” contamination by a bacterium typically passed on to humans through animal products such as chicken and eggs.

Other incidents reported over recent months include the recall of canned vegetable products and the deaths of five children related to contaminated noodles. South Africans should not accept these failures as a normal part of manufacturing.

The primary concern for food manufacturers should be the health and safety of consumers. In SA’s developed manufacturing industry any deaths should be unacceptable. But over many years of visiting firms and factories, and speaking with factory supervisors and managers, it has become easy to see how quality control can be discounted.

Corners are cut amid the pressure cooker of production volumes. Quality becomes just another box to be ticked. This is not unique to SA. The documentary American Factory gives an excellent real-world view into the tension that plays out between production and quality control inside many manufacturing facilities.

Affected sales

It is usually only when a company’s bottom line is imperiled that business leaders sit up and take notice — and that bottom line does take a beating.

A study examining the economic fallout from the listeriosis contamination of meat products — notably polony — over 2017 and 2018 looks specifically at how a product harm crisis (PHC) affected consumer behaviour over the first three months after the product recall. PHCs are broadly defined as incidents that attract wide and negative publicity to a brand due to a product defect.

The study compares sales figures on each of the 89 days after the product recall in 2018 to the sales on the exact dates in 2017, before the incident. Specifically, it used point-of-sales data from a major retailer. In this way the research forms a reliable picture of exactly how the listeriosis incident affected the sales of not just the brand item involved, but also that of related meat products, other products from that brand, and similar products of rival brands.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found a significant country-wide drop in sales of all polony products. Likewise, there was a negative spill-over effect onto other products from the implicated brand, in which sales also dropped — signalling a general loss of consumer faith in that business. Regarding maintaining and improving quality firms within the same sector should clearly be sharing best practices as a quality crisis in one firm has negative effects across the sector.

Long memories

Apart from the devastating loss of life or health impacts, this and other studies indicate that PHCs pose a great risk not just to a firm’s performance, but to the economy of the sector at large; the damage is not confined to the implicated firm.

And as incidents of PHCs accelerate, as they seem to have in SA in recent months, the impact may well be compounded. This is something food manufacturers should consider individually and as a collective as their fortunes are intertwined, for better or worse.

This is particularly true in food manufacturing, where mishaps get more scrutiny and bad press. And consumers have long memories, as illustrated in the case of the 2008 contaminated infant milk formula scandal in China, where, 10 years after 300,000 babies fell ill and six died, Chinese parents had still not regained their trust in Chinese formula products.

In response to the most recent incidents the SA Bureau of Standards has called for the introduction of comprehensive food safety management systems, and increased training and certification. Food manufacturers and the industry can be proactive in this regard. For one thing, quality controls should not be looked at as expensive and dispensable extras to the production process or simply as boxes to be ticked, but as an essential and cost-saving principle and value.

Firms should also adopt a culture of quality and quality control all along their supply chains and entire production process. This culture must be imprinted — and reinforced daily — in the minds of everyone from managers to floor workers.

Imagine if in all the cases cited above problems had been detected earlier — as they probably should have been — before valuable person-hours and other resources (including water) had been wasted. Improving quality ultimately results in lower costs and higher profits.

Food manufacturers should recognise that the lack of a quality culture makes for bad business and can leave a bitter taste that lingers long after in consumers’ mouths. 

Source:, authored by Hamieda Parker (left), a chemical engineer by training, and an associate professor at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), where she teaches operations and supply chain management.

She is the co-author of a study on the economic impacts of the listeriosis contamination of meat products, published in the 2021 International Business Conference Proceedings, see pages 1230 – 1245.