It started in March of 2015 when THREE PEOPLE DIED of "ice cream-related illness" in Kansas.
The deaths of three people who developed a foodborne illness linked to some Blue Bell ice cream products have prompted the Texas icon's first product recall in its 108-year history. Five people, in all, developed listeriosis in Kansas after eating products from one production line at the Blue Bell creamery in Brenham, Texas, according to a statement Friday from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Blue Bell has been a Texas icon since 1907 and a source of state pride for many years as one of the best ice creams, with many flavors and varieties. When the FDA and the CDC determined the source to be from ice cream products produced by the Blue Bell Creamery in Brenham, Texas, it was a harsh blow. These findings turned into a total recall from Blue Bell, stopping shipment, distribution, and sales nationwide.
The CDC also made it clear that the listeria outbreak dates back to 2010!
The CDC recommends consumers do not eat any Blue Bell brand products.
Blue Bell decided to yank all its products after tests showed some half-gallon containers of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream contained listeria. "This means Blue Bell has now had several positive tests for Listeria in different places and plants," the company said in a written statement.
So, this wasn't an isolated one-time contamination, but rather a systemic issue. Ouch.
So why is this on aggypedia, you might ask? Let's start at the top.
Ed. F. Kruse.
Kruse was 13 when he began working for his father, E.F., at Blue Bell. After Kruse graduated from Texas A&M University with a dairy science degree in 1949, he took a different career path before returning to Blue Bell full time in 1951 at the urging of his father, who was then Blue Bell's manager.
Management knowledge of listeria contamination
But -- doesn't that seem unfair to taint (pun intended) the memory of Mr. Kruse with this scandal?
Not really, when it comes out that Blue Bell KNEW ABOUT the listeria contamination.
Listeria was found as far back as 2013 at Blue Bell Creameries’ Broken Arrow, Okla., production facility, according to federal inspection reports released Thursday.
And then, when it is reported that supervisors up and down the management chain were more concerned about money than about safety or health/contamination issues, it makes it even harder to defend.
For the first time, former Blue Bell Ice Cream workers are claiming management ignored their complaints about conditions at their factory in Texas that was linked to an outbreak of listeria.
For the seven months leading up to the shutdown, Schultz operated a machine at the Brenham Blue Bell factory.
"A lot of times when I walked in there was just ice cream all over the floor," Schultz explained. "Sometimes the machines would just go haywire, the product would just continually run through the conveyor belt and just drop right onto the floor."
Schultz said stopping to clean the ice cream would slow down production, so workers left it pooling on the floor, creating an environment where bacteria could flourish. When Schultz complained to supervisors he said nothing was done.
"The response I got at one point was, is that all you're going to do is come here and bitch every afternoon?" recalled Schultz.
Schultz said the message was that production is probably more important than cleanliness.
Five-year Blue Bell veteran Gerald Bland operated a fruit feeder in a different part of the plant."It's all about the money," he said.
The ice cream that sickened five people was made on a production line that Blue Bell shut down in March after confirming it was contaminated with listeria. But in other parts of the plant, production continued for weeks.
"Nothing changed," said Bland. "The last two weeks was when they changed wash-up procedures and they started retraining some of us."
When asked if that was like closing the barn door after the horse gets out, Bland said, "Oh I think all the animals got out by the time they shut the door."On May 15, 2015, CEO Paul Kruse announced the first layoff in Blue Bell's history -- over 1,400 employees, including Bland and Schultz.
Continued aggy mismanagement
Kruse? Kruse? Where have I heard that name before? Ah yes.
Paul Kruse's father had warned him about the perils of family-run businesses, but he couldn't escape his place as the obvious heir of a dawning ice cream empire.
At 18, he had a paying job putting sticks into frozen novelties and packing half gallons into cardboard sleeves. Kruse worked in sales, made store deliveries, hauled ice cream cabinets and garnered two sets of stitches before setting off for Texas A&M University and an accounting degree.
A triumphant return
At the end of August, 2015, Blue Bell started distributing ice cream to select stores in Texas and Alabama.
It was a slow restart, as flavors were extremely limited and stock was (quite literally) rationed at various grocery stores to one or two containers per customer. But, it appeared that Blue Bell might be on the way back to a rebound.
At the end of 2015, the U.S. Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into Blue Bell Creameries.
Government lawyers are looking into what Blue Bell executives knew about listeria in its plants and potentially its products, and what they did in response, the person said.
Beyond the obvious liabilities for the deaths and illnesses, there were rumblings that this was a possible violation of the long-standing Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.
Under section 402(a)(4) of the Act, a food product is deemed “adulterated” if the food was “prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health.” A food product is also considered “adulterated” if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to health. The 1938 Act, and the recently signed Food Safety Modernization Act, stand today as the primary means by which the federal government enforces food safety standards.
Chapter III of the Act addresses prohibited acts, subjecting violators to both civil and criminal liability. Provisions for criminal sanctions are clear:
Felony violations include adulterating or misbranding a food, drug, or device, and putting an adulterated or misbranded food, drug, or device into interstate commerce. Any person who commits a prohibited act violates the FDCA. A person committing a prohibited act “with the intent to defraud or mislead” is guilty of a felony punishable by years in jail and millions in fines or both.A misdemeanor conviction under the FDCA, unlike a felony conviction, does not require proof of fraudulent intent, or even of knowing or willful conduct. Rather, a person may be convicted if he or she held a position of responsibility or authority in a firm such that the person could have prevented the violation. Convictions under the misdemeanor provisions are punishable by not more than one year or fined not more than $250,000, or both.
Hope you're not allergic!
In May of 2016, Blue Bell had to issue ANOTHER recall notice, after mistakenly packaging Cookies n' Cream ice cream into Rocky Road containers.
Why is this a big problem?
The company said it is now recalling select shipments Rocky Road ice cream pints made in Brenham because they may actually contain the company's Cookies n' Cream flavor. The Cookies 'n Cream flavor contains the undeclared allergens soy and wheat. No illnesses have been reported, but Blue Bell acknowledges the presence of soy and wheat could pose serious health risks to those who are allergic, according to a recall notice filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. There are no other health or safety concerns with the ice cream.
Whoops, (Blue Bell) did it again
So, fast-forward to September of 2016. Blue Bell seems to be on the rebound.
Yet another listeria outbreak in almost 2000 cases of shipped ice cream caused yet another recall.
A listeria scare has prompted Brenham-based Blue Bell Creameries and one of its vendors to issue a voluntary recall. The recall affects about 2,000 cases of cookie dough produced last month that was sent to Blue Bell facilities in Brenham and Sylacauga, Ala., for inclusion in Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Cookie Two Step ice creams.
While Blue Bell’s main plant in Brenham has far fewer issues than in the past, Texas health inspectors are still finding some causes for concern, according to documents filed by the state. An August inspection report obtained by the Statesman shows “a ceiling leak, caulking that needed repair, a vessel that needs to be sloped to the drain and a vessel that had the potential for condensation to drip into it.” Overhead pipes leaking into vats of ice cream is one theory some food safety experts have floated for how listeria bacteria might have previously spread in Blue Bell facilities, although that theory was never confirmed.
But - DON'T WORRY!!!
Blue Bell executives said they were aware of the recent findings by Texas health inspectors, and said those have already been addressed.
What is it going to take to actually put competent management in place at Blue Bell?
Well! Justice moves... just at a different pace.
May 1, 2020: From KHOU (Houston TV station):
Former Blue Bell President and CEO Paul Kruse has been charged with conspiracy for the company’s handling for the listeria outbreak in 2015.
The Justice Department announced the charges Friday afternoon.Kruse and other executives are said to have known about insanitary conditions at the company’s Brenham headquarters and did nothing to stop them, according to a 17-page indictment filed by the Justice Department.
From the Austin American-Statesman:
The former long-time chief executive of Blue Bell Creameries is facing criminal charges alleging he and other executives at the ice cream maker conspired to cover up a 2015 listeria outbreak at its plants that was connected to the deaths of three people.
Paul Kruse, who retired from Blue Bell three years ago, participated in a conspiracy to conceal “potential and/or confirmed listeria contamination in Blue Bell products from certain Blue Bell customers,” according to the U.S. Justice Department, which filed the charges against him Friday in U.S. District Court in Travis County.
According to federal prosecutors, other Blue Bell employees — “known and unknown” — also participated in the conspiracy.
“From at least 2010 and through April 20, 2015, Blue Bell executives, including Paul Kruse, knew that appropriate practices to ensure sanitary conditions were not being followed or achieved at the Blue Bell manufacturing facilities,” the charges state.If convicted of the conspiracy charge, Kruse faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He has been charged with six additional counts of wire fraud and attempted wire fraud that also carry prison sentences and fines.
- Listeria, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Listeria
- Blue Bell-Listeriosis story, https://www.yahoo.com/news/fda-warns-illness-linked-select-blue-bell-confections-212652513.html
- CDC: Blue Bell listeria outbreak dates to 2010, http://us.cnn.com/2015/04/20/health/blue-bell-ice-cream-recall/index.html
- Former Blue Bell CEO Ed F. Kruse dies, http://www.theeagle.com/news/blue_bell/former-blue-bell-ceo-ed-f-kruse-dies/article_10de8578-6233-11e5-9f65-bb50b6f88075.html
- FDA: Blue Bell knew about listeria contamination, http://www.statesman.com/news/business/fda-blue-bell-knew-about-listeria-contamination/nmBjW/?ref=cbTopWidget
- Blue Bell workers detail unsanitary conditions inside plant, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/blue-bell-workers-detail-unsanitary-conditions-inside-plant/
- After listeria deaths, Blue Bell is taking slow road, http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/The-rise-and-fall-of-an-ice-cream-empire-6710441.php
- It's back! Blue Bell returns to some Texas, Ala. stores, http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2015/08/31/blue-bell-ice-cream-returns/71447454/
- DOJ Investigating Blue Bell Creameries Response to Listeria Contamination, http://www.wsj.com/articles/doj-investigating-blue-bell-creameries-response-to-listeria-contamination-1451522328
- Why Paul Kruse, President and CEO of Blue Bell Needs a Criminal Lawyer, http://www.foodpoisonjournal.com/food-poisoning-information/why-paul-kruse-president-and-ceo-of-blue-bell-needs-a-criminal-lawyer/#.V-PiDfArK70
- Blue Bell issues another ice cream recall, http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2016/05/blue_bell_recalls_more_ice_cre.html
- Urgent Voluntary Recall: No Egg Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, http://cdn.bluebell.com/the_little_creamery/press_releases/bb-am-kol
- Listeria scare prompts new Blue Bell recall, http://www.statesman.com/news/business/listeria-scare-prompts-new-blue-bell-recall/nscYj/
- Former Blue Bell CEO charged with conspiracy for 2015 listeria outbreak, https://www.khou.com/article/news/local/former-blue-bell-ceo-indicted-conspiracy-justice-department/285-5ae8633c-b879-4191-b7f5-3f5742184937
- Former Blue Bell CEO charged with conspiracy, https://www.statesman.com/business/20200501/former-blue-bell-ceo-charged-with-conspiracy