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Ten days ago, Velvet Ice Cream of Utica, OH recalled all of the products it has made since March 24, 2021, but you’d never know by its Facebook page. There, it’s business as usual with posts of products, historic photos, and an invitation to come and eat ice cream at Ye Olde Mill on opening weekend, which was May 1, four days after the recall was announced.
Velvet may be selling scoops from a stockpile of ice cream made before March 24 that are stored inside its warehouse freezer. Completed in 2016, the $3 million, 23,000-square-foot expansion transformed a small freezer area into a warehouse distribution facility. The addition, which stores the ice cream at -20°F, can hold 3.2 million cartons of ice cream, enough to fill 18 tractor-trailers, according to information released when it was built.
But not all of the products on the warehouse shelves are ice cream.
With expanded freezer storage space came the ability for Velvet to become a distributor of other frozen products, according to a Business Journal story last year. In addition to its own products, Velvet distributes an assortment of frozen foods to its customers including pizzas, Hot Pockets, White Castle sliders, and ice cream brands with national or regional distribution such as Ben & Jerry’s and Breyers. Distributing an array of frozen products keeps Velvet’s daily delivery trucks full and simplifies ordering for customers, Velvet President Luconda Dager told the paper.
Delivery of these products, and any ice cream made before the recall, might be keeping some of the company’s staff of 125 occupied. But officers of the privately owned, 103-year old company are likely working with the FDA on an investigation of the recall and trying to develop a solution for a bacterial contamination problem so persistent, the FDA calls Listeria a “resident pathogen” there.
Listeria Can Survive Freezing Temperatures
Listeria monocytogenes is a bacteria that can be found anywhere in nature, but it grows best in cool, damp places. It can survive freezing temperatures, drying processes, and environments with high concentrations of salt, alcohol, acid, or bile. It’s also resistant to standard cleaning measures. And, unlike other bacteria that will slow their rate of growth in cold temperatures, Listeria actually thrives in them.
Because it is a known risk, the FDA requires food manufacturers to have specific plans to test for, and prevent the growth of, Listeria. For Velvet Ice Cream, this has been a challenge.
In May 2019, the FDA sent the company a warning letter. During an inspection a few months earlier, the agency had found serious food safety violations, including the presence of Listeria. The FDA told Velvet it would return for a follow-up inspection to make sure these problems had been addressed. But when FDA inspectors returned, they found the company had not taken adequate measures, so they issued the warning.
According to that document, the 2019 inspection wasn’t the first time the FDA found Listeria at the plant. It turned up during 2017 and 2018 inspections, too. All together, the FDA found six different strains of Listeria in the facility. Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) tests showed that the “fingerprint” of one of the strains discovered in 2018 matched one found in 2019. Finding the same strain over multiple years was an indication to the FDA “that there has been a resident pathogen or harborage site in your facility since 2018,” the letter states. Additionally, that same strain was also isolated from one Listeria patient in 2018, an indication that it is capable of causing human illness, according to the warning.
Velvet isn’t the only ice cream maker that has had Listeria trouble. In 2019, the FDA said it was stepping up its ice cream safety efforts after a string of Listeria recalls and outbreaks.
Symptoms of a Listeria Infection
Symptoms of a Listeria infection, called listeriosis, include high fever, severe headache, stiff neck and other muscle stiffness, confusion and loss of balance. Sometimes these symptoms are preceded by bouts of nausea, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Among pregnant women, Listeria can cause miscarriage and stillbirth. Usually, listeriosis symptoms appear within two weeks of eating contaminated food. But sometimes they can take as long as 70 days to appear.
Consumers who have eaten the recalled ice cream products should monitor themselves for symptoms and see a doctor right away if they develop. Pregnant women can suffer miscarriage or stillbirth even if they only experience mild symptoms from the infection.
Velvet Ice Cream Listeria Recall
On April 26, Velvet issued a recall for all ice cream and sherbet products made on or after March 24, 2021. The recall information is posted on the company’s website and on the FDA’s recall page. Except for the 56 -oz size of Butter Pecan and Cashew ice cream, which only appears on the list on Velvet’s website, the lists are the same.
The recalled ice cream and sherbet items were sold in various sizes under brand names including Velvet Premium, Discount Drug Mart, Buehler’s, Super Dip, Whale of a Pail and Ruggles. Frog Spit, a frozen green, novelty item sold under the North Star brand name is also included.
The recalled products were sold at Kroger, Giant Eagle, Discount Drug Mart, and other grocery and convenience stores in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. IGA, Chief and Buehler’s stores also sell the brand names of ice cream that are part of this recall but have not posted recall information on their websites. Consumers who have purchased any products sold under the above brand names should check recall information carefully.
The recall information does not specifically mention restaurants and foodservice locations. However, about a third of the recalled Velvet Premium brand products are packaged in 3-gallon containers which only appear in the “foodservice” section of Velvet’s website. Velvet Premium products in this size go to restaurants and foodservice locations not including healthcare settings and schools, according to the website.
It’s not clear what the FDA sees as the next step for Velvet. Other ice cream makers who have had Listeria problems have temporarily closed their manufacturing facilities for deep cleaning and sanitization, reopening after test results show the environment is free of the pathogen and better safety measures have been enacted. In some cases, the state health department may also have some guidelines it would like the company to adopt.
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