Companies in the food value chain who failed to adhere to South African and international food safety standards and are found culpable in the world's largest listeriosis outbreak will be punished, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said on Thursday.
"Laws are available to take people to account and they are going to be punished in terms of the available legislation," Motsoaledi said in a debate in the National Assembly on the food-borne disease which has caused 180 deaths in the country so far.
He was responding to calls from MPs in opposition benches that companies be prosecuted for selling foods containing listeriosis.
"The fact of the matter remains that over 180 people have died as a result of these unscrupulous companies who prioritise profit even over safety of people...," said Economic Freedom Fighters MP Elsabe Ntlangwini.
"It is engraved in our DNA as South Africans not to question the transgressions of white companies."
The Democratic Alliance (DA) however questioned what role the health department played in the spread of the bacteria.
"It is common knowledge that the Minister has announced that the source has been traced to the Enterprise processing plant in Polokwane, and Rainbow Chicken," said Democratic Alliance MP Lindy Wilson.
"While I am not here to absolve either factory for the role they have played in the loss of lives in South Africa, I question whether they are solely responsible."
Wilson said the Enterprise and Rainbow chicken plants should have been inspected every three months, bemoaning a severe shortage of environmental health practitioners who are able to perform these inspections.
Inkatha Freedom Party MP Narend Singh said he expected the corporate entities identified as being sources of the deadly outbreak should bear the legal responsibility for their actions, and that they cooperate with authorities, and provide assistance to affected families.
"No amount of false legal poetry can absolve them form bearing prime responsibility for the deaths..," said Singh.
Enterprise polony has been found to be one of the sources of the outbreak by the health department. The company is owned by Tiger Brands, a company that is no stranger to controversy. In 2007, the Competition Commission fined Tiger brands R99-million for fixing the price of bread - a staple food for the poor - along with a cartel of its competitors.
National Freedom Party MP Ahmed Shaik Emam accused Tiger Brands of continuing its practice of "stealing from the poor".
"There must be compensation. These companies...they must be held liable and their arrogant attitude of enterprise foods must not be tolerated. They must be brought to account," said Shaik Emam.
In a media briefing on Monday, Tiger Brands chief executive Laurence MacDoughall refused to take responsibility for the outbreak, denying any direct links between the deaths of 180 people and its products.
At a press conference in Johannesburg on Monday afternoon, MacDoughall said consumer safety was of paramount importance to the company, hence it had decided to embark on a voluntary recall of its products as part of corrective steps in response to the health department identifying processed meats as one of the sources of the food-borne virus.
This was after the health department said more than 16 environmental samples from the Enterprise factory in Polokwane, in the Limpopo province, tested positive for the ST6 listeriosis monocytogenes strain, which is responsible for the outbreak.