South Africa is currently in the midst of what has been described by the World Health Organisation, as the largest ever-recorded outbreak of the listeriosis, a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. While the current focus is on how to treat and support those affected by the bacteria, removing the implicated products from store shelves and disposing of them safely, the question must be asked as to what has enabled this outbreak and what could have been done to prevent it?

Recently Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry was advised that the South African processed meat industry had not been subjected to any standards regulating the quality and safety of products for the last few years. 

While testing, inspection and certification can seem like tedious processes of compliance, they play a far more important role.  Standards form the basis of mutual understanding between organisations and stakeholders while simultaneously serving as the tools to facilitate communication, measurement, commerce and manufacturing.  Very simply, they serve as a common basis for defining quality while setting safety criteria for the product.

In corporate settings, standards facilitate business interaction and enable companies to comply with relevant laws and regulations. They ease and accelerate the introduction of innovative products to market. This point is crucial in that there is a misconception that regulatory standards delay product introduction while in reality, they fastrack the introduction of a product the market.

Standards also assure the market of the interoperability between new and existing products and services. In addition, standards ensure that products, components and services supplied by different companies will be mutually compatible in a diverse and increasingly competitive marketplace. 

Yet this process and its application, remain unseen to the consumer until we have a situation which could have been avoided by the more rigorous application and adherence to set standards supported by thorough testing, inspection and certification (TIC) processes. The total cost of this listeriosis outbreak to the industry, economy, corporate reputation and, most importantly, to the families that have lost loved ones, is as yet unknown.

What we do know is that the listeriosis outbreak will have a financial and reputational impact on the affected companies. Given that these processed meat products are largely consumed by lower income families, the loss of a breadwinner will have a severe impact on family lives and possibly the next generation. 

This therefore brings to the fore the added dimension of the importance of applying standards as a way of protecting the most vulnerable in our society, those who bear the brunt of the rising poverty and inequality in our country.

In South Africa, the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for managing the setting of standards and their compliance through a range of instruments and processes administered by, amongst others, the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications and the National Consumer Commission. However, these bodies are rendered relatively ineffectual when there are no national standards. 

Without standards, the all-important, and necessary process of TIC by an independent third party will not be mandatory. It is crucial to note that the TIC process is important even if the country does not have national standards. Even if a company has internally derived and enforced standards, compliance to them has to be validated by a credible independent body. This not only makes sense from a consumer safety perspective, it makes sense from a reputational and business perspective.

Kennedy Nzimande is the managing director of UL Africa which supports innovation while enhancing the safety and security of people, the communities where we live and work, the products that we use, and our shared environment.

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