An ice cream company whose product has been linked to a deadly outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections says the implication is pure speculation by state and federal health officials.

Big Olaf Creamery owners stated in a Facebook post “that the investigation is ‘only speculation’ ” and it is unclear why the company is being “targeted” after six of 23 patients had mentioned eating their ice cream. “Our brand has not been confirmed to be linked to these cases…”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Saturday that the company’s ice cream is the likely source of the 23-person outbreak that has killed one woman and resulted in a pregnant woman’s fetal loss. Twenty-two patients have been hospitalized across 10 states.

Some public health entities are under fire from a Seattle food safety attorney who filed the first lawsuit related to the outbreak on behalf of a woman who died in January this year.

“Why a company that knows it is under scrutiny for a deadly Listeria monocytogenes outbreak would ignore the science and put customers at risk is really beyond comprehension, immoral and likely criminal,” said the attorney Bill Marler.

“Why the Sarasota and Florida Departments of Public Health have not stopped production and sales and ordered a full recall is a failure to protect the public.”

Officials with Big Olaf have advised stores to stop selling its products but has not initiated a recall. The company, based in Sarasota, FL, was founded in 1982 and has 15 retail locations around the state, according to the company website. The stores sell ice cream for consumption on site as well as packaged to take home. Some of them are licensed by the company while others merely feature Big Olaf products.

According to Ryan Ballogg of the Bradenton Herald, the Florida Department of Health is leading the epidemiological investigation of the Listeria outbreak. On Wednesday, spokesman Jeremy Redfern told the Bradenton Herald that consumers should continue to avoid Big Olaf products. 

“The Department of Health advised Big Olaf to suspend sales and production until further notice. They informed us that they’d be contacting those that serve their product to recommend that they stop serving.

“It appears that they aren’t necessarily taking our advice,” Redfern said in an email.” 

The company has posted a rebuttal on its Facebook page stating that it has “been cooperating with the Florida Department of Health, FDACS and the FDA as soon as we were informed about the situation,” the post says. “We have been transparent and have answered all their questions and provided them with all the information requested from us, as the health and well-being of the public is our first priority.”

In its report on Saturday, July 2, The U.S. CDC said of 22 patients with information available, 20 reported living in or traveling to Florida in the month they became sick. Illnesses started on dates ranging from January 24, 2021, through June 12, 2022.

The CDC notice states that the sick people ranged in age from less than 1 to 92 years old.

The Florida Department of Health, CDC, public health and regulatory officials in several other states, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are involved in the outbreak investigation. Of the 17 people interviewed, 14 reported eating ice cream. Among 13 people who remembered details about the type of ice cream they ate, six reported eating Big Olaf Creamery brand ice cream or eating ice cream at locations that might have been supplied by Big Olaf Creamery.

According to the Big Olaf Creamery website, the company’s ice cream is “made at a local creamery near Sarasota’s Amish village of Pinecraft … hand mixed with the finest ingredients and is then churned in batch freezers by local Amish Craftsmen.”

Big Olaf products are only sold in Florida but only a dozen of the patients live in the state, according to the CDC.

Patients have been reported in Colorado as well as, one in Georgia, one in Illinois, one in Kansas, two in Massachusetts, one in Minnesota, one in New Jersey, two in New York and one in Pennsylvania. Of 10 people who provided the CDC with their travel information, eight reported travel to Florida in the month prior to getting sick.

Attorney Marler told USA Today that while it can be tough to pinpoint the source of listeria cases, because symptoms can take between three and 70 days to appear in patients, it’s relatively easy to link cases to a single source when genetic fingerprints are used. 

“Whole genome sequence gives you beyond a reasonable doubt – this is the kind of technology used in criminal cases, DNA sampling, that kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s been a game changer in the food space because you know that if people have the same genetic fingerprint, you know it came from the same place.”

Listeria monocytogenes is a deadly bacteria that generally hospitalizes more than 95 percent of those with confirmed cultures and kills at least 25 percent, according to the CDC. 

More about Listeria infections
Food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes may not look or smell spoiled but can still cause serious and sometimes life-threatening infections. Anyone who has eaten any of the implicated ice cream and developed symptoms of Listeria infection should seek medical treatment and tell their doctors about the possible Listeria exposure.

Also, anyone who has eaten any of the ice cream should monitor themselves for symptoms during the coming weeks because it can take up to 70 days after exposure to Listeria for symptoms of listeriosis to develop. 

Symptoms of Listeria infection can include vomiting, nausea, persistent fever, muscle aches, severe headache, and neck stiffness. Specific laboratory tests are required to diagnose Listeria infections, which can mimic other illnesses. 

Pregnant women, the elderly, young children, and people such as cancer patients who have weakened immune systems are particularly at risk of serious illnesses, life-threatening infections, and other complications. Although infected pregnant women may experience only mild, flu-like symptoms, their infections can lead to premature delivery, infection of the newborn, or even stillbirth.

Editor’s note: Bill Marler is the publisher of Food Safety News.