OPINION: Florida listeria outbreak raises caution about food hygiene

Twenty three patients showed food poisoning-like symptoms in a listeria outbreak across 10 states, which were later connected to the Big Olaf Creamery in Sarasota. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/CDC

A listeria outbreak responsible for killing one person and hospitalizing 22 others is linked to Sarasota-based ice cream brand Big Olaf, as per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s food safety alert on July 8.

Given the threat listeria poses to our community, there is a need to strengthen public health campaigns and to ensure food safety agencies’ prompt actions for greater caution on food hygiene to protect consumers. A proper understanding of listeria would improve food hygiene in the U.S.

Listeria is a bacteria which can survive and grow resistant to refrigeration. It is often transmitted to people through contaminated food, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Consumers are most likely contaminated when eating uncooked food with a long shelf-life under refrigeration, such as cured meat and sausages or soft cheeses, according to the World Health Organization.

Pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to this bacteria.

CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the U.S. In terms of listeria, there are around 1,600 cases annually, resulting in nearly 300 deaths. Listeria causes about 10% of foodborne disease deaths in the U.S. each year, proving the need for tightened food hygiene regulations.

Companies responsible for causing health risks to the community — like Big Olaf ice cream — should be put under heavier penalties and prosecution to minimize mishaps. Product quality must be more strictly inspected at every stage of the supply chain, including sourcing, processing and customer distribution.

Foodborne illnesses are a recurring struggle for the U.S., with outbreaks stemming from a wide variety of food like packaged salads, deli meat and dairy products.

In 2016, 19 people across nine states were infected with listeria by Dole packaged salads processed in Ohio, resulting in one death. This incident repeated itself in April 2022 when 18 people were hospitalized, out of which three died, from another outbreak associated with Dole packaged salads, as per the CDC timeline.

Food safety agencies haven’t acted promptly enough to avoid further contamination. CDC sent out its first alert regarding Big Olaf ice cream on July 1, ABC7 investigators found it remained on shelves for business the next day, as per a July 5 article.

“For now, it is only speculation as it is an ongoing investigation, our brand has not been confirmed to be linked to these cases,” the company said in a Facebook post to explain its appearance in retail locations after the outbreak. 

Government agencies must ensure prompt actions and stricter law enforcement to ensure food processing companies act in the best interests of our community’s health.

On a more personal level, it is necessary that consumers equip themselves with proper food safety practices and be more selective in their food choices.

Refrigerators, cutting boards and countertops need to be washed and cleaned regularly, as per FDA’s food safety tips. Cross-contamination between raw and ready-to-eat foods has to be avoided at all cost, which comes from caution in preparing and storing foods separately.

Foodborne illnesses remain an ongoing fight for government agencies and consumers. Food hygiene is not only important, but vital, to public health, and should be treated with the attention it deserves.