Never Buy Ice Cream Before Doing This, Officials Say

Forgetting to do this could put you at risk for life-threatening complications.

Buying your favorite ice cream from the grocery store is one of life's simplest but greatest pleasures. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans say they like to have ice cream in their freezer "at all times," according to a recent survey from Oatly and OnePoll. With a treat this sweet, it's hard to imagine that anything could go wrong beyond the occasional brain freeze, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), harmful outbreaks of the bacteria Listeria are now often linked to dairy products—leading investigators to trace recent outbreaks to ice cream. Severe Listeria infections hit around 1,600 people in the U.S. each year and about 260 die as a result. To avoid this, experts say there is one thing you must always do before buying ice cream. Read on to find out what step you should never skip at the grocery store.

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A deadly bacteria outbreak this year has been linked to ice cream.

Delicious strawberry ice cream in a bowl.

Over the past several months, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC have been investigating a multi-state outbreak of Listeria infections. As of Aug. 2, data from the CDC indicates that 25 people across 11 states have been infected in this outbreak, which has been ongoing since Jan. 2021. One person has died as a result. According to the FDA, officials have linked the Listeria infections to one source: ice cream supplied by Big Olaf Creamery in Sarasota, Florida.

The Florida-based ice cream company recalled all flavors and all lots of their branded ice cream in July because of its "potential to be contaminated" with Listeria monocytogenes. "Consumers, restaurants, and retailers should not eat, sell, or serve any recalled Big Olaf ice cream products and should throw the product away, regardless of the 'Best By' or expiration date," the FDA has warned, noting the investigation is still ongoing.

But the danger of this bacteria is not limited to one brand.

Eating food contaminated with Listeria can have serious consequences.

Abdominal pain patient woman having medical exam with doctor on illness from stomach cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic discomfort, Indigestion, Diarrhea, GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease)

The CDC says that people can develop a severe infection after eating food contaminated with the Listeria monocytogenes. The bacteria can "spread beyond the gut to other parts of the body," according to the agency.

Symptoms of a Listeria infection (or listeriosis) can be similar to those caused by other foodborne illnesses, including fever and diarrhea, but if the infection turns serious, severe symptoms will usually start one to four weeks after eating contaminated food. These symptoms include headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, convulsions, fever, and muscle aches.

Pregnant people with Listeria infections, on the other hand, "typically experience only fever and other flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue and muscle ache," the CDC warns—but their illness could lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, of life-threatening newborn infections.

"Listeriosis is usually a mild illness for pregnant women, but it causes severe disease in the fetus or newborn baby. Some people with Listeria infections, most commonly adults 65 years and older and people with weakened immune systems, develop severe infections of the bloodstream (causing sepsis) or brain (causing meningitis or encephalitis)," the CDC says. "Listeria infections can sometimes affect other parts of the body, including bones, joints, and sites in the chest and abdomen."

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Bacteria can grow in ice cream when it's stored at unsafe temperatures.

Boy eating ice cream

It's clear that Listeria is nothing to mess with, but what allows this bacteria to contaminate foods like ice cream? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), harmful pathogens can flourish in foods when they're left at certain temperatures—in fact, even temperature as cold as 40 degrees Fahrenheit can allow bacteria to grow rapidly, "doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes," per the FSIS.

"It's why it's a problem for cooler foods like ice cream and cheese," Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer in Washington state, explained to Time.

According to Taste of Home, ice cream usually goes bad and causes food poisoning in one of two ways: It was manufactured with ingredients that were tainted with bacteria, or you eat the ice cream after it's melted, especially if it's been melted and refrozen. "Even after you refreeze your melted ice cream, it won't be safe from certain bacteria that's been allowed to grow. For example, Listeria can not only survive, but also thrive and reproduce right in your freezer," the magazine explains.

You should never buy ice cream from the store without checking the freezer temperature.

Woman buying bucket of strawberry ice cream from the fridge in the supermarket

To avoid buying ice cream that has potentially allowed for harmful bacteria growth, you need to make sure you do one thing before putting it in your shopping cart. "Check the temperature of the grocer's freezer case," say the experts at the Colorado Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence (CoE). According to the CoE, the temperature of a supermarket's freezer case where ice cream is being stored should never be above 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) says that the optimal temperature of a supermarket freezer is 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, and notes that even above 10 degrees Fahrenheit may be unsafe.

Of course, you might not always be able to check the actual temperature—and you wouldn't be aware if it had been higher at some point before you checked—so you can also inspect the ice cream for signs of improper storage temperatures. "If the freezer is kept at a proper temperature, ice cream will be thoroughly frozen and hard to the touch," the CoE explains. "If the product is soft, it should be brought to the attention of the store manager."

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