Listeria Outbreak Prompts Ice Cream Recall as Family Sues Over Miscarriage

Big Olaf Creamery is pulling its ice cream from shelves and shutting down operations over listeria contamination, as a married couple's lawsuit alleges the company's products caused a miscarriage and regulators increase scrutiny of the Florida-based company.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Wednesday that Big Olaf is recalling all flavors of its products over concerns they were tainted by the potentially dangerous bacteria. The same day, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a stop use order of the company's processing equipment after tests came back positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

The new focus on the creamery, which earlier said there was no evidence linking it to the spread, is the latest as public health officials search for the source of the listeria outbreak. The Sarasota-based ice cream maker has been targeted by lawsuits from people alleging that consumption of Big Olaf's products resulted in tragedy.

The couple, from Massachusetts, sued Big Olaf last week, alleging the contaminated ice cream caused a miscarriage after the family ate the creamery's products during a May visit to Clearwater, Florida, for a wedding.

Brought by Kristen Hopkins and Frank Imbruglia in Pinellas County court, the lawsuit states the couple had announced the pregnancy to their family at the wedding. At the time, Hopkins was 11 weeks pregnant. After returning home, the couple, who have two daughters, found out their baby was healthy and the boy they had hoped for, according to the lawsuit.

Ice Cream Sign
Florida-based Big Olaf Creamery is removing its ice cream from stores after state regulators directed it to cease operations over listeria contamination, coupled with a family's lawsuit alleging that its ice cream caused a miscarriage. Above, a neon sign in front of a shop advertises ice cream for sale in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Robert Alexande/Getty Images

But Hopkins on May 31 developed mild cramping, coupled with persistent diarrhea, according to the lawsuit.

"Over the following days, the diarrhea did not improve and her stomach pain intensified," reads the lawsuit. "By June 11, 2022, she started experiencing intense headache. The next day, she awoke pale, shivering and fatigued. Her husband drove her to the closest hospital."

The couple were told at the hospital that their baby was dead, the lawsuit states. A blood culture taken from Hopkins was positive for the listeria monocytogenes and matched with the strain associated with the current outbreak, the lawsuit states. The couple are seeking an unspecified amount that exceeds $30,000.

Despite the lawsuit, Big Olaf is currently only "a potential source of illness," the FDA said in its statement, citing epidemiological information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Florida officials.

"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 creamery said in a July 3 Facebook post.

Stating that "the health and well being of the public is our first priority," the company said in the post that it has cooperated with the FDA as well as Florida public health officials.

Based in Sarasota, Big Olaf's products are sold in Florida retailers and served in restaurants and senior homes, in addition to another location in Fredericksburg, Ohio, according to the FDA. The recall covers all flavors of its ice cream, which comes in containers from pints to 2 1/2-gallon tubs, with expiration dates through June 30 of this year.

A separate lawsuit was filed last week in federal court by Richelle Brown, a California resident and husband of Mary Billman. The lawsuit alleges Billman was sickened and later died in January after eating listeria-contaminated ice cream from Big Olaf on a trip to Florida.

Erin Moffet, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told Newsweek in an email that nine of the 100 environmental samples collected from the Big Olaf processing facility tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

"With these results, FDACS has issued a stop use order of the processing equipment where the Listeria monocytogenes was found," said Moffet. "This will effectively shut down all operations at this processing facility, which had already been done voluntarily by the company."

Moffet said the department expects test results from product samples to be returned in the coming days.

According to the most recent update from the CDC, a total of 23 people in 10 states have been infected with the strain of listeria monocytogenes associated with the current outbreak.

Public health authorities reported last month that a majority of the cases from the outbreak, which began January 24, 2021, had ties to Florida.

Newsweek has reached out to Big Olaf for comment.

Update 7/14/22, 5 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional information from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.