Anyone looking for a list of things not to do when your product is linked to a deadly food poisoning outbreak can find an ample number of suggestions in the Facebook comments about the Big Olaf Listeria outbreak.
On July 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified Big Olaf ice cream as the source of a Listeria outbreak that sickened 23 people in 10 states. One woman died and one of the pregnant patients suffered a miscarriage.
Health officials used whole genome sequencing on the Listeria strains cultured from each patient and found that they were highly related. This means the patients likely all got sick from the same contaminated food source. The patients reported first experiencing symptoms of a Listeria infection on dates ranging from January 24, 2021, through June 12, 2022.
All of the patients either live in or visited Florida before they became ill. (Twelve are Florida residents, 11 are visitors.) Big Olaf ice cream is sold at multiple locations in Florida and one location in Ohio.
At the time of the July 2 announcement, health officials had interviewed 17 of the outbreak patients. They were asked about the foods they had eaten in the month before they developed Listeria symptoms. Fourteen of them recalled that they had eaten ice cream. Six specifically remembered eating Big Olaf ice cream or eating ice cream at locations that serve Big Olaf.
The day before this information was made public, July 1, state health officials contacted the company with the above information. When presented with the epidemiological evidence establishing their product as the source of the deadly outbreak, Big Olaf chose not to issue a recall but said it contact vendors and recommend that they not sell the product.
This brings us to the first recommendation of Facebook Commenter Advice on Outbreak Response. (Comments were gathered from the company’s Facebook page, independently owned store pages and stories about the outbreak that were posted to Facebook.)
1. Don’t Decline to Issue a Recall
And this commenter didn’t even realize that the January we are talking about is January 2021. So, rather than illnesses reported over six months, it’s actually an 18-month period. So, it’s not just one bad batch of ice cream.
Declining to issue the recall and offering to “recommend” that the ice cream not be sold puts the decision in the hands of each vendor. And forces them to take the financial hit if they take the recommendation. For some, the knowledge that the product may be contaminated with the deadliest foodborne pathogen would be the only information needed to dump the product. For others, it may be the death and the miscarriage. But there are others who might just decide to sell it. And some did.
A handful of Big Olaf licensed stores sold the ice cream through July 3 then closed their locations for deep-cleaning and reopened selling a different brand of ice cream. Others sold the ice cream days longer.
2. Don’t Negate the Facts, Minimize the Impact or Complain You are Being “Targeted”
On July 3, the day after the CDC identified Big Olaf as the source of the outbreak, a company spokesperson issued this statement:
“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 January 2022.[sic] 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.”
An owner of two licensed Big Olaf stores posted the following message on July 5.
About a week later, another Facebook post announced that after a brief closure the two stores would be reopening on July 14 with new names, serving McClain’s ice cream.
#3 Don’t Forget Who the Real Victims Are
In a July 8 update about the outbreak, the CDC said 18 patients had been interviewed and 10 reported eating Big Olaf ice cream or eating ice cream at locations that might have been supplied by Big Olaf Creamery.
Seven of the patients are part of three illness clusters which are “defined as two or more people who do not live in the same household who report eating food from the same retail location before becoming ill,” the CDC said. Illness clusters are an indicator that a contaminated food item was served or sold at that establishment. The three illness clusters in this outbreak were at retail locations that sell Big Olaf ice cream.
On July 13, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services revealed that 10 environmental samples from the Big Olaf Creamery production facility in Sarasota, FL, and 16 different flavors of Big Olaf ice cream tested positive for Listeria. That same day Big Olaf issued a recall for all of its ice cream. The recall includes all flavors and lot codes with expiration dates through 6/30/2022 (the last day they made ice cream). The ice cream was sold in plastic pint, half-gallon, and 2.5-gallon containers. Consumers who may have this ice cream at home in their freezers should not eat it.
It could be months before it is known if the two-week delay in the recall contributed to more illnesses as symptoms of a Listeria infection can take as long as 70 days to develop. And these patients didn’t just suffer a stomachache. Twenty-two of the 23 patients were so sick they needed to be hospitalized. One woman is dead, another has suffered a miscarriage. The lives of these families are forever changed.