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FDA Investigation Finds Harmful Bacteria in Ice Cream Facilities

Just in time for summer, consumers can finally get some answers about harmful bacteria in ice cream.  The U.S.  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced their findings this week as they wrapped up a sweeping investigation into the deadly Listeria outbreak in 2015 that was linked to contaminated ice cream.  In their year-long test, the FDA found harmful bacteria in a staggering 21 percent of ice cream production facilities tested.

When it comes to food safety, the adage that “no news is good news” is not the best approach.  Consumers need to be informed of potential dangers so that they can make the best choices for their families.  Discovering that your favorite treat is manufactured in a facility contaminated with harmful bacteria is no fun.  However, the alternative is consuming a product that could make you sick.

Deadly Listeria Outbreak Prompted a Massive Investigation

The FDA started their investigation in August 2016 after 16 separate ice cream products were recalled due to harmful bacteria.  Those 16 recalls were issued in the span of three years.  Not the least of these recalls was the deadly Listeria monocytogenes outbreak associated with Blue Bell ice cream in 2015.

In 2015, Blue Bell Creameries ice cream caused 10 cases of Listeria illness in four states.  An additional three people died from the harmful bacteria in the ice cream.  Blue Bell’s recall was not the only Listeria-related ice cream recall that year.  At the time officials and the media were perplexed about the presence of Listeria in ice cream because the bacteria can’t grow at freezing temperatures.  At the time, it was basically unheard of to become ill from Listeria in ice cream.

However, Listeria is harmful bacteria that thrives in refrigerated conditions and is very difficult to eradicate once it contaminates a food production facility.  In 2015, Blue Bell Creameries completely shut down all three of their facilities to deep-clean them and attempt to remove any sign of Listeria from its facilities and products.

The FDA Investigation and the Harmful Bacteria it Revealed

Knowing so many Americans had become ill from Listeria, the FDA launched an investigation to determine exactly how the harmful bacteria entered the food supply.  Listeria cannot spread at freezing temperatures.  Therefore, the agency hypothesized the bacteria came from contaminated raw ingredients or environmental contamination in processing facilities.

The FDA reported the following in their investigation:

  • A total of 89 ice cream facilities were investigated across 32 states.
  • The inspections took place from September 2016 to August 2017.
  • Researchers found Listeria in 19 of the 89 plants tested (21 percent).
  • The 89 plants tested represent 16 percent of all ice cream plants in the U.S.
  • Researchers identified one plant with Salmonella contamination as well as Listeria.

The FDA launched this large-scale investigation in response to the 16 ice cream recalls the agency oversaw between 2013 and 2016.  Due to suspicions that the issue was systemic, the agency wanted to investigate statistically significant numbers of ice cream facilities that had a large range of distribution to American consumers.

Though the majority of the ice cream producers adhered to the FDA’s best practices for food safety, more than one in five tested positive for potentially deadly harmful bacteria.  About their findings, the FDA said,

“These results serve as an important reminder to all food facilities distributing products in the U.S.  of the importance of complying with rules set forth to mitigate safety issues.”

Considering the shocking numbers of facilities contaminated with harmful bacteria, FDA officials are calling for the development and implementation of strict food safety plans among facilities that produce related food products.  Both Listeria and Salmonella are hazards that companies could effectively minimize if preventative practices were included in a standardized food safety plan.

Illnesses Associated with These Harmful Bacteria

In their investigation, the FDA identified Listeria and Salmonella at ice cream producers.  These foodborne illnesses cause an assortment of symptoms, and can be very dangerous.  Consider the following:


harmful bacteria

Listeria can affect healthy adults and children.  It is particularly dangerous among the elderly, adults with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women.  Among these groups, symptoms are more severe, and can be life-threatening.  The harmful bacteria can cause:

  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Fetal death or stillborns
  • The most severe cases of Listeriosis are fatal

Most cases of Listeria illness stem from consuming:

  • Lunch meats, or cured or smoked meats
  • Unpasteurized cheese
  • Unpasteurized milk
  • Fruits and vegetables – Listeria on cantaloupes caused 30 deaths in a shocking 2011 outbreak

Listeria is a scary pathogen because it is simply everywhere.  It can be found in soil and water, and can be tracked into food production plants by people and animals.  Likewise, it grows well in refrigerated conditions, which are a crucial component of food manufacturing and distribution.


harmful bacteria

Though Salmonella did not feature prominently in this investigation, it was found in one facility, which is enough reason to remind consumers of the danger.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than one million Americans each year become ill due to Salmonella infection.

Like Listeria, Salmonella infection is not usually a health crisis for healthy adults, but it can be dangerous to children, the elderly, or individuals with a compromised immune system.  These groups more frequently require hospitalization from Salmonella infection, and some develop long-term complications.

Most people infected with Salmonella will have these symptoms within 12-72 hours of exposure to the contaminated food:

  • Fever
  • Diarrhea, often bloody
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain

In the most severe cases, Salmonella infections can spread to the bloodstream, causing further complications, especially among the vulnerable populations mentioned above.

These serious and long-term complications can include:

  • Endocarditis
  • Arterial infections (infected aneurysms)
  • Arthritis

Most victims will generally recover from their bout with Salmonella in less than a week with no treatment.  Some patients, however, will need to be hospitalized for dehydration from their symptoms.

Food Producers are Responsible for Harmful Bacteria in their Products

Regulatory agencies like the FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) exist to monitor food safety practices, and investigate trends in foodborne illnesses.  Without their sweeping study, consumers may have continued to be afraid of serving ice cream to their families.  Luckily, national attention in 2015 and 2016 seems to have slowed the onslaught of Listeria contaminated ice cream.  Recalls helped reduce the amount of contaminated product sold.  Attention to the recalls also helped food producers focus on food safety practices.

That said, the results of the study indicate that food safety related to ice cream products may be more widespread than anyone previously theorized.  With more than 20 percent of facilities tested showing contamination by harmful bacteria, who is to say when the next Listeria recall will come? Hopefully, the FDA focus and newly gathered information will minimize the impact of any such event.

Foodborne Illness Attorneys

If you or a family member has required medical treatment after eating food contaminated with harmful bacteria, contact Bad Food Recall to speak with one of our foodborne illness attorneys.  You may have a claim for monetary compensation.  Call us today at 1-877-534-5750, or fill out our online form to schedule a free consultation.


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