Photo: Jay Caboz

  • The listeriosis crisis may have originated from an imported, mechanically-recovered poultry product.
  • Also called "white slime", it contains chicken bones and bone marrow.
  • SA receives most of its mechanically recovered poultry from Brazil, which exports it at R4.21 a kilogram.

The country’s listeriosis crisis may have been triggered by a chicken paste known as "white slime", a meat scientist has told Business Insider South Africa.

South African polony and other process meats must contain 75% of "meat equivalent" under legislation that is 45 years old.

The meat equivalent is calculated by determining the total amount of nitrogen in a sample and multiplying by a factor of 30. It can include all kinds of protein, including soy, pork fat – and also mechanically deboned chicken, says Louw Hoffman, a professor in meat science at the University of Stellenbosch.

Also called "white slime", the US government's official definition of mechanically deboned chicken is: "a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones with attached edible tissue through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue".

See also: Imported 'white slime' is being tested for listeria at South African ports – but Brazil says it is not to blame

In a nutshell: after chicken breasts and thighs are removed, small pieces of chicken remain on the bones. High-pressure machines are used to separate the carcass. The chicken bits are then pureed with small pieces of bone and bone marrow to form a paste that is used in processed meats.   

South African imported 202 million kilograms of mechanically deboned chicken last year, most of it from Brazil. In December 2017 alone, 12 million kilograms of this product was imported from Brazil – at a cost of only R4.21 per kilogram, according to the SA Poultry Association.

Hoffman believes South African polony and viennas must contain some of this imported chicken product to help keep the cost of the products down, and to ensure affordability of protein for lower-income groups.

“This means that the strain of listeriosis may have originated from overseas.”

Earlier, the South African Department of Agriculture‚ Forestry and Fisheries said it was looking to temporarily ban meat imports from countries like Brazil to combat the listeriosis outbreak. South Africa also imports mechanically deboned chicken from Thailand (174,000kg in December 2017), the US (27,000kg and Argentina (1,000kg).

According to one academic study, listeriosis remains an under-diagnosed and under-reported infection in Brazil as it is not a compulsorily notifiable disease in that country.

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