SARASOTA, Fla. – Big Olaf Creamery is being sued over the death of a woman whose estate alleges she contracted listeria from its ice cream.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court by the estate of Illinois resident Mary Billman claims the Sarasota, Florida, based company caused her death because she ate contaminated ice cream.
Big Olaf has several locations on the Gulf side of Florida, with four locations in Sarasota and additional locations in Venice and Lakewood Ranch. According to the company’s website, nine other ice cream shops in Florida sell Big Olaf ice cream.
The company also delivers ice cream in Florida and to select locations in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio.
According to the lawsuit, Billman allegedly ate contaminated ice cream at Big Olaf's Pinecraft location in Sarasota on Jan. 18 on a visit to the area.
About a week later, Billman had developed gastrointestinal symptoms and a fever of 103 degrees. Billman was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, where her daughter lives, and began treatment for a septic illness.
Over the next two days, her organs started to shut down, leaving her unconscious, and died Jan. 29, leaving behind her husband Richard, three daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit comes three days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory warning consumers not to sell or eat Big Olaf ice cream and linking it to a listeria outbreak.
The company's ice cream is produced at a central location in Sarasota and then distributed to each independently-owned Big Olaf store and to other retail partners.
On Sunday, Rosie Peachey of Big Olaf Creamery said that despite the CDC's advisory, the ice cream's link to the outbreak was "only speculation" and that the brand was not confirmed to be linked to the cases.
How does the CDC trace outbreaks?
Bill Marler, the plaintiff's attorney in the lawsuit against Big Olaf Creamery, said the CDC doesn't make reports based on speculation.
Marler, who has represented clients in foodborne illness cases for the past 30 years, said confirmed cases of listeria are reported to public health departments. A state lab then provides genetic fingerprinting and whole genome sequencing, and a digital picture then gets uploaded to a CDC database called PulseNet, where matches can be found.
"The CDC looks at that digital fingerprint and compares it to others to look for matches, so when this outbreak began back in January of 2021, there must have been no matches," Marler said. "Over the course of time, other people got sick, and the same thing happened.."
At that point, health officials interview survivors to try to find out where they ate, Marler said.
While that can be tough in listeria cases, because symptoms can take between three and 70 days to appear in patients, it's easier to link cases to a single source by looking at their genetic fingerprint.
"Whole genome sequence gives you beyond a reasonable doubt – this is the kind of technology used in criminal cases, DNA sampling, that kind of stuff," he said. "It's been a game changer in the food space because you know that if people have the same genetic fingerprint, you know it came from the same place."
Are Big Olaf stores still open?
Over the July 4 holiday weekend, some Big Olaf locations were closed, while others remained open even after issuance of the advisory.
The Siesta Key location is closed until further notice. Big Olaf's Pinecraft location, the one where Billman allegedly ate on Jan. 18, was closed over the weekend. A sign in the window on Sunday said the store would be closed until July 11 because of a death in the family.
On Thursday, Big Olaf Creamery-St Armands announced it would reopen, but have decided to "temporarily discontinue" selling Big Olaf brand ice cream.
Eszter Bazso, owner of Big Olaf locations in The Landings plaza and Bee Ridge Plaza, said on Facebook that it was open on the Fourth of July and on Tuesday.
How many have been ill?
On Saturday, the CDC issued a food safety alert, linking Big Olaf ice cream to a listeria outbreak, accounting for 23 illnesses, 22 hospitalizations and one death in people from ten states.
The governmental entity advised consumers to throw away any remaining Big Olaf ice cream product and to clean any areas, containers and serving utensils that may have touched it. Businesses, the CDC said on Saturday, should not serve or sell any Big Olaf ice cream products.
It also said that the company was voluntarily contacting retail locations to recommend against selling the product until further notice, although locations remained open after the advisory.
Listeria, according to the CDC, can cause severe illness known as invasive listeriosis when bacteria spread beyond the gut to other parts of the body. Adults aged 65 and older, pregnant people and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk.
Contributing: Camille Fine, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Listeria outbreak in Florida: Big Olaf creamery sued by woman's estate