Ice cream products from Big Olaf Creamery in Sarasota, Florida, are likely responsible for a listeria outbreak in several states, according to an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One person has died and 22 others have been hospitalized since the outbreak began in January 2021, according to the CDC. A dozen cases have been reported in Florida and eight more involved people who had traveled to Florida in the month before they became ill.
Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that infects people through contaminated food, is rare but can cause serious infections. According to the CDC, nearly 95% of people with listeriosis — the disease caused by the bacteria — require hospitalization. The fatality rate of the disease is about 20%.
The bacteria poses the greatest threat to pregnant women, newborns, adults 65 or older, and people with weakened immune systems.
“When we have an outbreak of listeria we are very worried because the ramifications are so serious. Although we don’t have many cases, the ones we do tend to be severe,” said University of Florida food safety professor Keith Schneider.
At least 14 people in the recent outbreak reported eating ice cream in the month before their illness started, the CDC said. Six said they ate Big Olaf Creamery ice cream or consumed ice cream from places that may have carried the mark.
Big Olaf products are only sold in Florida. The company began telling stores not to sell its ice cream on Friday, the CDC said. Although Big Olaf did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment, he said in a statement to The Associated Press that the link between his ice cream and the listeria outbreak was unconfirmed.
The company added that it is cooperating with state and federal health authorities.
“We were transparent and answered all their questions and provided them with all the information requested of us, because the health and well-being of the public is our first priority,” the statement said.
On Tuesday, the estate of Illinois resident Mary Billman filed a lawsuit against Big Olaf, alleging tainted ice cream was responsible for his death in January.
How listeria gets into food
The CDC recommends people discard Big Olaf products and contact their health care provider if they develop symptoms such as diarrhea with fever.
Schneider said listeria can survive for long periods of time in cold, damp spaces.
In 2015, the CDC linked a multi-state listeria outbreak to Blue Bell Creameries products. Ten people were hospitalized and three of them died. In 2020, a federal court in Texas ordered Blue Bell to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties.
Other listeria outbreaks have been linked to packaged salads, cantaloupes and frozen vegetables. Schneider said most listeria outbreaks occur when bacteria from soil, water or vegetation are introduced into a food processing or manufacturing plant.
“It could come on someone’s shoe coming in from the parking lot,” he said. “So it’s one of those things where almost anyone or any company can be sensitive.”
During the Blue Bell outbreak, he said, condensation-contaminated liquid leaked onto the processing line.
“Typically, where we see listeria becoming a problem is when sanitation breaks down or becomes established in a floor drain or on equipment, and that equipment is not sanitized to a sufficiently high level. high, and then it ends up contaminating a food product,” he said.
The CDC recommends that businesses clean and disinfect any areas or equipment that may have touched Big Olaf Ice Cream. Consumers should also clean any areas, containers or utensils that have touched the products.
“What protects listeria is the moisture content of that ice cream, the fat content of that ice cream. Once he gets out of that, he won’t survive for long periods of time,” Schneider said. “But out of caution, you might want to erase everything.”
The symptoms of listeriosis can be very varied
Listeriosis affects approximately 1,600 people in the United States each year, far fewer than the most common foodborne illnesses. (The country records 1.35 million annual salmonella infections, by comparison.)
“Despite the fact that it’s not very common, it’s the one that worries us the most when we talk about processed foods,” Schneider said.
People with listeriosis may develop muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and seizures.
In infected pregnant women, fever is the most common symptom, but vomiting and diarrhea are rare. Listeriosis can lead to dangerous pregnancy-related complications, such as miscarriages, stillbirths, or premature births. Newborns whose mothers have been infected can develop life-threatening blood infections, pneumonia or meningitis.
In some cases of listeriosis, people get sick within 24 to 72 hours, Schneider said. But if the bacteria spreads to parts of the body beyond the gut, it can take several weeks for symptoms to develop.
“If you have an invasive form, Listeria has the ability to hide in white blood cells. It’s a bit insidious,” Schneider said.
He added that the severity of an infection does not necessarily correlate with the amount of contaminated food someone has eaten.
“If I have a very sensitive individual, it may take a very small amount,” he said.