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Listeriosis Outbreak in South Africa- an Agro-terrorist Act?

Publishing Date : 13 March, 2018

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Agro-terrorism should not be ruled out from the recent outbreak of the deadly Listeriosis in South Africa that WHO declared as the ‘world’s worst outbreak’. Agro-terrorism is the deliberate introduction of pathogens (viruses, bacteria, or fungi) in a country’s agriculture and food systems.

The aim is to cause human illness and generate fear, economic losses, and/or undermine social stability threatening national security. Developing countries need to advance and implement food security strategies to counter terrorist attacks on their agriculture and food supply chains.

The denial of a direct link between meat processors and deaths caused by the world’s largest listeria outbreak opens suspicions of terrorist attack on the South African food industry.  Listeriosis is a deadly food poisoning caused by eating meat and meat products, dairy products fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits contaminated with the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. The outbreak has so far killed 180 people with more that 1000 cases reported causing fear for more deaths and cases.

The nature and the timing of the outbreak is an agro-terrorism attack, as a biological agent found in food substances causes human illness particularly to the most vulnerable; children, pregnant women and the elderly. Attaining political means by attacking agriculture and food supplies has always been eminent though not accorded the necessary attention; the 1997 Israel pesticides attacks on 17,000 metric tonnes of Palestinian grapevines and the 2011 use of threat to poison UK and US livestock with foot and mouth disease virus caused pain in the countries’ meat supplies.

More recently, an environmental activist in New Zealand threatened to have contaminated infant formula with pesticide sodium fluoroacetate, or 1080. The threat crippled New Zealand’s milk powder exports. Terrorism is a means to political power. The Listeria outbreak comes a few days after the South African parliament, under the recently inaugurated President Cyril Ramaphosa, voted for a motion to expropriate land without compensation. Reactions by white extremists on social media point to retaliation to the land reform policy: white farmers and land owners were advised to poison the soil and waterways and migrate overseas.

A rational mind would link the outbreak to an act of sabotage by certain white extremists who are against the equal redistribution of land. The outbreak may be a strategy to threaten the current political power by attacking the agricultural sector which is symbolic to the land question in South Africa. The psychological mixture behind the attack might be to destruct the black majority from celebrating their landmark parliamentary vote to own and control land after 400 years of landlessness.

The white extremists’ reactions resonate well with the 1985 State of the Nation Address by the former apartheid South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha. He suggested the use of chemical weapons in the country’s food supply chain to combat population increase among blacks in the country. He went on to caution against the use of conventional weapons like atomic bombs against the black South Africans, preferring the use of intelligence mainly slow poisons in food and drink products consumed predominantly in black locations.

Thus, the use of pathogens is cheap and effective in evoking fear compared to the use of conventional weapons of war. Contemporarily, blacks are the largest consumers of ready to eat meat products owned by the majority of powerful white conglomerates in the country. This increases the black community’s vulnerability to any food poisoning. Consequently, the recent listeriosis outbreak has instilled fear in the psychological make up of South Africans.

The deaths of 180 people resuscitated the terror caused by Dr. Wouter Basson’s Project Coast. This was a top-secret chemical and biological weapons programme of the apartheid regime. The programme aimed at producing mandrax, tear gas and birth control medication to cause social instability and reduce the black population. The point is that terrorists use violence as power, mainly by evoking fear in the minds of the leadership. The outbreak undermines the incumbent President’s authority, causing instability that threatens his new grip to power.  We could now be entering another era of terror.

Agro-terrorism is an act of “economic treason” as agriculture plays a significant economic role in many countries. The fear caused by the outbreak has reduced the demand of meat and meat products in South Africa and the Southern African region. The consumption of polonies, sausages and other processed meat has radically dropped while the consumption of meat substitutes is expected to rise. In addition, agricultural trade is sensitive to biosecurity measures such as strict disease controls to protect local production.

Consequently, several countries have banned and recalled processed meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit imports from South Africa. This has caused severe economic losses from the country’s agricultural exports which generated a record high of $10 billion in 2017. Enterprises affected report that control measures such as the return and disposal of contaminated products has severely disrupted the meat supply value chain from the farm gate, distributors, retailers to restaurants with serious economic implications.

South African supermarkets operating in the region with meat products valued at $529 million in 2017 have been instructed to remove the meat products from supermarket shelves. This might be collateral damage as terrorism attacks are not selective of victims.
The food industry is open with many points of vulnerability to attacks, from contamination of production, processing and packaging of food products.

Mitigating and managing risk in the  food supply chain is made difficult with the lack of counter-terrorism experts and laws that recognize and minimize the capability of terrorist. Lack of integrity in the supply chain worsens the situation as the industry is dominated by food fraudulent enterprises. Therefore, there is a need to develop an efficient and transparent food supply chain.  There is also a need for robust testing regimes that are specific to food security, operated by expert food scientists to guard the integrity of food supplies.

Specific laws are needed to establish counter terrorism attacks especially with the existing expertise in agriculture and food safety. Also, governments need to invest more on biosecurity and food safety infrastructures particularly at the national border posts. The  terror, deaths, economic losses and social instability  caused by the Listeriosis outbreak should not be in vain. They can be taken as a wake-up call for countries have to promote product traceability systems and tighten their biosecurity and food safety to mitigate against such outbreaks.  

Kgolagano Mpejane is a graduate of International Agribusiness from the University of Waikato, New Zealand. His research interests are in Global Political Economy of Agrarian Development; International Agricultural Trade and War, Peace and Food Security.
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