Explained: Everything we know about the listeria outbreak connected to Big Olaf Creamery

ABC7 has compiled all the information we have on the listeria outbreak tied to Sarasota as the...
ABC7 has compiled all the information we have on the listeria outbreak tied to Sarasota as the company fires back at the CDC's warning.(Shane Battis)
Published: Jul. 4, 2022 at 8:26 PM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Big Olaf Creamery is pushing back after the Centers for Disease Control issued a food safety alert warning customers to avoid eating their products. The Sarasota creamery has been linked to an outbreak of listeria, a disease caused by eating food contaminated by bacteria.

Many viewers online are raising some skepticism over the alert, calling the CDC’s actions into question. So, ABC7 has compiled everything we know about the situation coming from both sides of the issue.

Sarasota residents were first alerted to the listeria outbreak on July 1 when the CDC sent out a food safety alert urging everyone to stop eating Big Olaf ice cream, throw it away and clean anything those products touched. That webpage on the CDC’s website explains Big Olaf is “voluntarily contacting retail locations to recommend against selling their ice cream products until further notice.”

Some details regarding the ongoing investigation are also listed, explaining one person has died and 22 others have been hospitalized by listeria cases spanning ten states. All those patients, according to the investigation, either lived in Florida or visited within a month of getting sick.

It’s unclear if any of those patients are from Sarasota or Manatee County.

So far, 17 of those patients have been interviewed by the CDC, six of whom claim they had recently eaten Big Olaf branded ice cream, or they ate ice cream from a location that might be supplied by the Sarasota creamery. The alert notes the investigation is ongoing, but it does not list any other food products aside from those coming from Big Olaf.

On its website, Big Olaf lists five locations through the Suncoast between Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch, and Venice.

Although the food safety alert writes that the company agreed to halt sales, ABC7 visited a location off Tamiami Trail that was open for business Monday afternoon. Neither the representatives at the shop nor those we connected with online wanted to talk on camera to explain why stores were still selling ice cream despite the warning.

Official word on the outbreak has only come from the company via a statement posted on its Facebook page. The full statement is as follows:

“For now, it is only speculation as it is an ongoing investigation, our brand has not been confirmed to be linked to these cases. I am not sure why only Big Olaf is being mentioned and targeted. The original report we got from the Florida Department of Health on Friday, July 1st, was that there are 23 cases reported, the first one reported was in January 2022. 6 out of the 23 patients mentioned having consumed Big Olaf ice cream, but nothing has been proven. We have been cooperating with the Florida Department of Health, FDACS, and the FDA as soon as we were informed about the situation. 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.”

On Sunday afternoon, Sarasota Memorial Hospital gathered local media outlets for a virtual news conference, sounding the alarm on the listeria outbreak. Dr. Washington Hill, a fetal maternal medicine specialist with the hospital, is putting out a warning that pregnant women in particular should be concerned if they’ve eaten this ice cream recently.

Expecting mothers, he said on a zoom call, typically experience flu-like symptoms when they catch listeria, but the illness is far more serious for their babies. The babies can get infected if the mothers get sick, which puts them at risk of stillbirths, miscarriages, or other complications that could send the newborn to the ICU.

It’s important to note that the most serious listeria cases involving pregnant women are “rare,” according to Hill. However, he doesn’t want any of these women to take a chance and put their child’s life at risk.

“You should really stay away from the contaminated ice cream,” he said on the call. “And the CDC indicated that was Olaf ice cream, which of course is made here in Sarasota.”

For the women out there who have eaten at Big Olaf’s recently, Hill advises them to call their doctors whether they’re experiencing symptoms or not.

According to the CDC’s website, other people at risk of serious complications from listeria include those older than 65 and those with weak immune systems. For everyone else, listeria symptoms are usually mild and feel similar to food poisoning.

There is more than one listeria outbreak with ties to Florida.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration posted a notice that A&M Farms of Lyons, Georgia is voluntarily recalling some of its whole Vidalia onions. According to the announcement, onions included in the recall were sold between June 22 – 24, 2022 in Georgia and Florida Publix stores.

The FDA reports no illnesses or deaths have been associated with the potentially contaminated onions.

You can check the lot numbers of the recalled onions by clicking here.

The A&M Farms recall doesn’t mention whether these onions have been sold in Publix stores on the Suncoast, only that they have been distributed somewhere in the state. The CDC has not issued a food safety alert in connection to the onions, and Dr. Hill did not mention this recall during the weekend news conference.

ABC7 has reached out to the CDC to ask them for more details on how its investigators work to pinpoint the source of outbreaks, but they have not returned our request for comment.

This is a developing story ABC7 News will continue to follow.

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