Statistically speaking, South Africans eat about 12g of processed meat a day.
But that's a national average - across all economic demographic lines. If you take the total of processed meat consumed per year and divide it just by the lower income portion of our population well, then that number increases.
Tremendously. Just to give you an idea, 64.2% of South Africans are poor.
Poorer people eat more polony.
Therefore, with the current Listeriosis state of emergency on our hands, it's the poor who suffer.
Of the 180 people who of already died from the disease, how many news stories have you seen mentioning that any of those people are from high-income households?
Saturday nights were polony and chip nights. Thinly sliced, just enough for our family of five. Dressed with some tomato and Worcestershire sauce. The polony we got was the type you purchase off the shelf that comes tightly gloved in that bright red plastic. It was garlic polony. We like a bit of spice.
Sometimes, your plate was the one gifted with that special slice that had a hard piece of something in it. I never knew what it was but I always seemed to get it. When that happened there were just a few rules that apply:
- Don't think about it too much
- Don't try and chew it because it's really hard
- Don't look at it because it looks a bit like an eyeball and just swallow - quick
I still apply those rules, because I still eat polony.
Polony is cheap and it's processed fast. There's no time for endless grinding the way some other more expensive deli meats are made. Factories need to churn that offal mixed with chicken and nitrates and who knows what else quickly so they can add the pink dye, wrap and sell - as many as they can, as quick as they can… and get that money. A well-oiled market that runs by itself and requires little attention or intervention it seems.
But 2018 was the year the pink meat got it's five seconds of fame, for all the wrong reasons.
The Tiger Brand's Enterprise plant in Polokwane proved to be the source of what is now being referred to as the deadliest listeriosis outbreak in history. Over 1000 people are ill and as I mentioned earlier 180 of them are dead.
The government has issued a recall and a health warning. Polony has been pulled from the shelves.
Many South Africans (mostly those with access to Twitter - read: middle to upper class citizens) have expressed their gratitude at polony being given its marching orders because "gross" and many others have waxed lyrical about the food choices people make. Think organic vs. processed. Think judgement based on a classist system of bourgeois food vs. disgusting food like polony.
Sometimes "disgusting" polony and chip nights in my household would fall on a Saturday night. This brought along with it the longevity of the processed food.
The roll of pink meat would last until Monday, which meant that our lunch boxes would be filled with thickly buttered white bread and slices of that stuff served cold. A real treat. Filling.
And you know what, it still is. It still is both a treat and filling.
Just a couple of weeks ago I revisited my deep and intense love affair with the plain polony sandwich on white bread. I demanded my cousin get some from an Athlone butchery so that we could have it for lunch with a mug of hot, sweet tea. The affair lasted two weeks, for every meal. I didn't have to eat polony, I wanted to.
Then of course there are the millions of times in my life when the polony sandwich has been my only form of sustenance. All I could afford as a student, or all that money could buy after rent on an interns salary.
And you know what, all of this is still not equal to the exhaustion of true, true poverty. You see, polony is not just processed meat, it is politics. It is a fleshy line between expensive and inexpensive food. It's a separation and an invasion at the same time. It is polonialism.
Writer and poet Pravasan Pillay shared one of the few insightful status updates to come out of the polony discourse.
In it, he speaks of the polony shaming that is running parallel to the listeriosis news.
He writes about how people can't stop talking about the fridge meat being industry garbage and unfit for human consumption.
"I'm not claiming that polony is anything close to being healthy but in a country with widespread poverty it is without doubt one of the country's go-to cheap proteins. To talk so dismissively of a staple of so many working class homes eat, is poor shaming plain and simple. And that makes you the disgusting one not the polony", he accurately and passionately writes.
Pillay is by no means condoning the consumption of unhealthy consumables.
He states the sentiment openly and blatantly: Polony is the result of the capitalist industrial food system.
And then, like all good critical thinkers worth their polony sandwiches he follows it up with more challenges: do you think your healthy, sustainable eating and wellness is not part of the industrial capitalist system?
There is no moral upperhand on people who eat polony. Healthy organic eating is just the latest status symbol of a capitalist society.
When you're poor as polony, you resort to eating food that is cheap as chips.
It's easy to finger point and blame unhealthy food choices on a lack of education "because why don't people go get some beans and make a stew instead".
Here's why. There is no time. The last think on a stressed, overstretched working parent's mind for example, is travelling a long distance, again, to jot down to the nearest store or seller with fresh produce so that they can return and cook a meal from scratch which will hopefully satiate the hunger of a family who has probably waited all day to eat.
And all they want is to eat as soon as possible.
The "buy cheap fresh veggies" argument might be well meaning and conscious but on many, many levels it is also severely and deeply unconscious.
When poor people don't cook the way you want them to, with the ingrendients you condone, it is not in fact because it is lazy.
It is because it is expensive. It takes extra money for commuting, electricity, gas, water and additional ingredients. So while cooking might be a nice stress relief for the middle class foodie, it can actually be stressful for a whole variety of other reasons for the majority of the nation.
Less fresh often also means highly calorific. When fresh and full meet, being full always wins. And yes, it is possible to believe in the above and also believe in the impact of red meat on our environment, health and animals. But for the purposes of this article, the argument is one sided: Polonialism, like colonialism, is an evil that needs to face justice.
Dr Theo Broodryk, head of the University of Stellenbosch law clinic, who spoke to Rebecca Davis of the Daily Maverick said: "If every South African who bought an Enterprise meat product over the last year tried to join the class action, it "could make the class definition over-broad and the class action trial unmanageable".
This paints a pretty clear picture of the statistics we're dealing with here. But he also said: "Class action lawsuits in situations such as these could help foster a more accountable and responsible corporate culture in South Africa. This is particularly the case where the plaintiffs lack the resources to pursue legal action individually". And they do.
Until then, consider this: Polony has not just been pulled from shelves, it has also been pulled from the homes of those who depend on it as a key source of satiating sustenance.
*Update: We incorrectly identified the source of the listeriosis outbreak and have updated the error accordingly.