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The victims of listeriosis — making the private sector answerable to the poor

Since 2018, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s (SACBC) Justice and Peace Commission has offered pastoral and legal accompaniment to some of the victims of the listeriosis outbreak that claimed more than 216 lives and led to 1 000 infections between October 2017 and March 2018. Fr. Stan Muyebe looks at the need for the private sector to become more ethically accountable to the poor.  

As expected, the focus of Tiger Brands, a company identified by the health department as being linked to the listeriosis outbreak, is on the legal and technical aspects of the outbreak. The role of the Justice and Peace Commission has been to shine a light on corporate ethical responsibilities and the human face of the listeriosis outbreak. In the context of a possible protracted lawsuit against Tiger Brands, the Commission also seeks to bring God’s love to the victims and keep their hope alive.

Recovering corporate ethical responsibility

The listeriosis matter has been reduced to legal technicalities. In March 2018 the health minister announced that the listeriosis had been traced to a factory in Polokwane owned by a subsidiary of Tiger Brands. As expected, Tiger Brands has refused to apologise to the families. It has also insisted that the link between the deaths of 216 people and its products is yet to be proven in a court of law. The demands of ethical responsibility, which is a standard higher than legal responsibility, are being overshadowed by legal and financial expediency.

To its credit, Tiger Brands has cooperated in some aspects of the legal process. In December 2018, the South Gauteng High Court granted a certificate order that allowed the lawyers to initiate a class action lawsuit against Tiger Brands. Tiger Brands did not oppose the certification process. As a sign of good faith, it also decided to share the cost of the communication campaign for the lawsuit. Despite this position, it has insisted that it will fight the lawsuit.

This year, however, Tiger Brands has made two decisions that have worried the victims’ families.

Firstly, the company issued subpoenas against food testing laboratories to obtain information on the identities of those who submitted samples for listeriosis testing and the results of these tests during the outbreak period. Some of the laboratories, including Aspirata and Deltamune, have decided to oppose the subpoenas, citing a breach of confidentiality against their clients. Tiger Brands has recently lodged an application in the High Court to compel the disclosure. Although it is a separate action, it has the potential of delaying the main litigation for years, especially if the dispute goes all the way to the Constitutional Court.

Tiger Brands has created an image and a concern among the affected families that it is not serious about accountability to the affected families.

Secondly, Tiger Brands announced that it intends to sell its processed meat products business, which was alleged to be the source of the listeria outbreak. It has assured families that this would not interfere with its commitment to the class lawsuit. Richard Spoor Attorneys, which is representing the affected families, has also indicated that, despite the sale, Tiger Brands would still be liable for the outbreak if found guilty. Although the sale of the assets may not substantially disrupt the process and outcome of the lawsuit, it has created an image and a concern among the affected families that Tiger Brands is not serious about accountability to the affected families.

Some of the families see these decisions as a procedural tactic to delay the case for up to a decade and then escape accountability. It would stand the test of legality, but a protracted lawsuit would be hard on them.

It could, however, fail the ethical test, including corporate ethical responsibility. Using its moral voice, Justice and Peace Commission is hoping to exert moral pressure so that there is a substantial shift towards corporate ethical responsibility for listeriosis victims, which could in turn translate into a settlement agreement. It will be sad if the listeriosis victims had to wait another seven years — or more — to receive justice and closure.

Recovering the human face of the outbreak

While Tiger Brands and the World Health Organization focus on the legal and epidemiological aspects of the outbreak respectively, the role of Justice and Peace Commission has been to highlight the human face of the tragedy, which is also the face of the suffering Christ. The Commission has provided some families with a platform to tell their stories. These include victims’ stories of loss, broken lives and broken relationships. One of the affected families, for example, is a couple who had been struggling to have a baby. They were eventually blessed by pregnancy. The mother, however, lost the unborn child after eating listeria-infected polony. Their lives is now burdened by the pain of loss.

The role of the Justice and Peace Commission has been to highlight the human face of the tragedy, which is also the face of the suffering Christ.

The Justice and Peace Commission is also interested in the poverty dimension of the outbreak. Since the cold processed meat is a common food in poor families, the majority of the victims are the poor. It is often the poor who bear the cost of corporate negligence, especially when it comes to products and services mostly used by the poor. The tragedy might not have occurred if the food products were targeted at elite markets. In South Africa, poverty often leads to premature and avoidable death, as a result of poor access to uncontaminated food, clean water, quality healthcare and dignified living conditions. It is an aspect that the Church seeks to correct and deter.

Influencing a new vision of accountability to the poor

Corruption and violation of human rights are often associated with the public sector. So too is accountability to the poor. However, it is not solely the government’s responsibility to protect the rights of the poor. The corporate sector is equally ethically answerable to the poor. A new vision of society requires the private sector to look beyond its shareholders and to ensure that its activities do not trample upon the lives of the poor. The work of the Justice and Peace Commission among victims of corporate violation of human rights contributes to the development of this vision.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Stan Muyebe OP
Stan Muyebe OP is the Provincial for the Dominican Order in Southern Africa. He directs the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference Justice and Peace Commission. He also serves as an associate researcher both at the University of Pretoria and Domuni University. As a human rights activist and anti-corruption activist, he was involved as a complainant in the State Capture Inquiry which was conducted by Advocate Thuli Madonsela.

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