University of Pretoria food safety expert warns food safety crisis now could be tipping point for health sector

Posted on June 29, 2020

One of South Africa’s top food safety experts, Professor Lise Korsten, has warned that the country cannot afford another food-borne outbreak like the listeriosis crisis of 2017/18 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof Korsten is a Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of Pretoria, and is Co-Director of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)-National Research Foundation (NRF) Centre of Excellence in Food Security, which is co-hosted with the University of the Western Cape. She was a panellist at the recent virtual World Accreditation Day Dialogue, sponsored by the South African National Accreditation System (SANAS) and Business Day. The event was aimed at raising awareness of the critical role food safety plays in the maintenance of a healthy population – especially in countries like South Africa, where diseases such as HIV have left millions of people immunocompromised. This is now further complicated by COVID-19.

She warned that, “In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as authorities grapple with how to assure safe food production and delivery from an industry battered by lockdown and restrictive measures, the medical fraternity will not be able to cope with another disaster such as a listeriosis outbreak. The impact on food supplies in the face of threatening food shortages would be catastrophic.”

Pointing to the human cost associated with the food safety threat, Prof Korsten told the audience that 420 000 people die every year from food-borne diseases, which affect one in every ten people globally. South Africa’s 2017/18 listeriosis outbreak claimed over 200 lives. The issue is at the top of the agenda once again as COVID-19 lockdown regulations turn the focus on to restaurants struggling to survive, and people serving up meals for purchase from their homes as they attempt to make a living. But that’s only the local picture.


Professor Lise Korsten stressed the critical role of the country’s scientists in guiding authorities in terms of best practice.

According to Prof Korsten, “Food safety and food security are closely linked. With COVID-19, we know we have a food shortage; we are concerned about global and local food supplies. So, if we add food safety concerns to the picture, the potential consequences could be the tipping point for an already overburdened system.”

In May, the United Nations World Food Programme executive director, David Beasley, told a virtual session of the UN Security Council on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Protecting Civilians Affected by Conflict-Induced Hunger, that the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic as it battles COVID-19.

“There are no famines yet. But I must warn you, if we don’t prepare and act now to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade, we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a few short months,” he said.

Prof Korsten said the Sustainable Development Goals, including the bid to achieve zero hunger by 2030, could not be achieved without safe food. She stressed the critical role of the country’s scientists in guiding authorities in terms of best practice based on the latest scientific findings, and the important link between all role players, including industry, scientists and government.

“It’s important everyone understands that science is the frontier of knowledge. It is that spectrum of new knowledge which provides the information underpinning our standards and regulations governing the issue of food safety and, consequently, food security. It is the scientists who provide the information industry can use to improve prevention of food-borne pathogens, and for government to adopt science-based policy, and to adapt regulations and standards,” she said.

Prof Korsten referred to the “big five” food-borne pathogens. These include norovirus, Salmonella spp., Campylobacter spp., and others, such as Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus. She explained that the prevalence of these organisms fluctuates over time and according to the type of the food being sold, prepared, and consumed. Countries around the globe register these shifts in terms of the scale of the outbreaks, severity of the disease in the population, and the persistence of the pathogen causing the food-borne outbreaks over time.

“The frontiers of food safety are changing continually. As we learn more about managing the pathogen and preventing outbreaks, another one arises.”

She also flagged a further coronavirus-related concern in respect of the food preparation environment. It is especially relevant now as buildings that have been closed for several weeks during the lockdown are being reopened, she said.

“Now people are going back into these buildings with stagnant air and are told the contact surfaces have to be cleaned. But how effective is the cleaning, with what do they clean, and where do they clean? We need to remember, pathogens are everywhere, and we have a natural microbial ecological balance in nature.”

Prof Korsten explained that with mass cleaning, and excessive use of disinfectants and sanitisers, the long-term detrimental effect of these chemicals on the ecosystem “is going to remain with us and cause future microbial challenges. That’s where the scientists come in.”

“We are key role-players in providing not only food-safety intelligence, but also food-chain systems knowledge, and improved practices based on novel emerging technologies. It’s imperative that we are part of the information platforms so that we can share, as widely as possible, the critical data so important for decision making and for the general public,” Korsten said.

The DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS) was launched on 15 April 2014, to undertake innovative research to enable South Africa to tackle the challenge of food security and nutrition. The Centre is hosted by the University of the Western Cape, and co-hosted by the University of Pretoria.

- Author Loga Makwela, University of the Western Cape

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