UP Food Safety group and drama students raise awareness about listeria with play about SA outbreak

Posted on January 17, 2019

The listeria outbreak in South Africa in 2017-18 was brought to life on stage as the University of Pretoria’s (UP) postgraduate drama students put on a performance at the recent Science Forum South Africa held at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria.

Under the supervision of Drama lecturer Bailey Snyman, and in collaboration with the Food Research Group of the Department of Science and Technology (DST)-National Research Foundation (NRF) Centre of Excellence in Food Security, the students demonstrated the unfolding of events during the outbreak, which led to more than 200 deaths in South Africa.

Listeria is caused by bacteria from soil, water, vegetation and animal faeces which can contaminate fresh food, particularly meat. Listeria monocytogenes can cause illness if it occurs in high concentrations in contaminated food products and if consumed by immune-compromised people, such as the elderly and small children.

At the advent of the listeria outbreak, the disease was perceived as an invisible monster that caused sickness and death. For a while, South Africans lived in fear as they did not know which food was contaminated with this bacterium.

The devastating 2017-18 listeria outbreak in South Africa was regarded as the biggest outbreak in the world. This indicated how important food safety is in our stride to achieve food security. Food safety is a shared responsibility and requires an extensive rethink about what is being produced, processed, handled, distributed, prepared and consumed.

The play took the audience through a layered, interactive approach reflecting on the “behind the scenes” drama which was happening during the world’s biggest foodborne disease outbreak. It also provided some food for thought and demystified science, as it reflected real-world solutions to mitigate the spread of food-borne diseases.

Prof. Lise Korsten, Co-Director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, said, “Our intentions were to ignite conversations about the importance of public education about food safety, and what impact it can have on health, well-being, and national food security status. We also wanted to bring the message home that food must be safe, in order for all to prosper. The play was so insightful and successful that we want to carry it across the country.”

Drama lecturer Bailey Snyman said, “South Africa cannot afford another outbreak, and this will require all players in the food chain to respond and be proactive in order to prevent another outbreak. Food safety should be carefully considered, as it presents a challenge for all, from the farm to the fork.”   

Portia ‘La-Posha’ Khoza, a UP Drama master’s student who was part of the performing ensemble, said, “I felt compelled to be a part of this play, because most people are still vague about listeriosis. Therefore this play will enlighten the public about listeria. This play is meant to educate and expand knowledge about this deadly bacterium.”

Click here for videos of the play.

- Author Xolani Mathibela

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