Tainted ice cream raises larger questions about food safety

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams on King Street has been closed since last Thursday after initiating a voluntary recall for potential listeria contamination. The company says it is destroying 265 tons of ice cream in an effort to ensure its products are safe.

A Columbus, Ohio, ice cream company, which operates a gourmet scoop shop on King Street, has thrown out 265 tons of ice cream — the equivalent of 15 tractor-trailer loads — after a random inspection revealed some of its products were contaminated with listeria.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has not received any complaints or reports of illness associated with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, but that doesn’t mean the company is in the clear yet.

The federal government says it takes three days, and sometimes more than two months, for listeria-related symptoms to set in. Those include fever, headache, stiffness, nausea, stomach ache and diarrhea — many of which are commonly associated with a stomach bug. The bacteria is particularly harmful for pregnant women, the elderly and for anyone with a compromised immune system.

Mary Beth Dewitt, 68, who lives on Little Oak Island, said she felt terribly ill after sampling several flavors and eating two scoops, one brown butter brittle and one goat cheese cherry, of ice cream at Jeni’s on April 18.

“I was so sick on Sunday (April 19) I could not even get to the emergency room,” she said.

At first, she thought she’d come down with some severe stomach virus. Doctors at an urgent care center on Folly Road administered two bags of intravenous fluid that Monday because Dewitt was so dehydrated.

“I had no idea,” she said. “The doctor even said, ‘Do you think it could have been something you ate?’ ”

That seemed unlikely, she said, until her daughter called her with news that Jeni’s had abruptly closed last Thursday because its products were potentially tainted.

“That’s the only thing it could have been. Can I prove it? No,” she said. “It took me a full week to get over this. Actually, my appetite has not come back. I cannot eat what I could usually eat. I just don’t want any food.”

Dewitt didn’t get a lab test to confirm her suspicions and it’s too late now to say what made her sick. She said she felt ill within hours of eating the ice cream, making it less likely that listeria is the culprit, but not impossible. Two studies, published in 2005 and in 2013, show symptoms for some “listeriosis” cases have been documented within six hours after a patient ate contaminated food.

“It is not common for individuals to develop symptoms sooner than three days after exposure, but there is evidence to suggest it can occur,” said Cassandra Harris, a spokeswoman for the state health department.

Gastrointestinal diseases make an estimated 60 to 70 million Americans sick every year, according to a 2012 article published in the medical journal Gastroenterology, and listeria-related illness is rare. Symptoms for many of these diseases are similar, making diagnosis without a definitive test a challenge for doctors and those tracking an outbreak.

Still, the contaminated ice cream highlights how eating out — even eating manufactured food products at home — is inherently risky. The federal government and the state health department try to minimize the threat of foodborne illness outbreaks by setting safety standards and conducting random inspections, but food manufacturers are largely responsible for making sure the food they produce is safe and they don’t always do it well.

Only when the Nebraska Department of Agriculture recently discovered that some Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams products were tainted with listeria did the company take action. It recalled all Jeni’s products and closed all its shops, including its Charleston operation.

A company spokesman said there is no apparent connection between the Jeni’s listeria scare and the Blue Bell Creameries recall. Blue Bell, based in Texas, eventually pulled all its products from grocery store freezers across the country after the South Carolina health department discovered some Blue Bell desserts at a Lexington distribution center were contaminated with listeria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists a total of 10 confirmed cases through April 21 of listeriosis related to the Blue Bell outbreak in four states: Arizona (1), Kansas (5), Oklahoma (1) and Texas (3). Three deaths were reported in Kansas.

None have been reported related to Jeni’s ice cream.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who litigates high-profile foodborne illness lawsuits, expects more ice cream will be recalled as state regulators ramp up testing in response to these recent cases.

“We, as consumers, rely on manufacturers of food to produce food that’s safe for our families to consume. They market that food as fresh and local and organic or non-GMO (genetically-modified organism) — all of that. They never talk about it from a safety perspective,” Marler said. “Consumers don’t feel that their food is at risk because they believe what’s being told to them in advertising.”

We need to “eat more defensively,” he said.

Marler said he steers clear of sprouts, undercooked meats and older cheeses. He won’t buy raw milk, raw juice or bagged greens. Instead, he opts for whole heads of lettuce that he washes himself at home.

“Mass production has great opportunities to prevent foodborne illness and get us food at cheaper rates, but if you make a mistake it’s a disaster,” he said. “Blue Bell is a perfect example of that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.