Blue Bell Creameries is being probed by the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the listeria contamination of its famous ice cream brand. The criminal investigation is set to determine the knowledge the company’s management had of potentially deadly hazards caused by contamination of their plants — essentially, what they knew and, perhaps more importantly, when they knew it.
Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), investigated an outbreak of listeriosis linked to Blue Bell products. The report issued included laboratory results for product and environmental tests performed by the FDA and CDC during its inspection of Blue Bell’s plants. The CDC reported on the findings, which linked Blue Bell ice cream products to ten cases of the bacterial infection — including at least three deaths in Kansas — going back to 2010.
“A total of ten patients infected with several strains of Listeria monocytogenes were reported from four states: Arizona (1), Kansas (5), Oklahoma (1), and Texas (3). Illness onset dates ranged from January 2010 through January 2015. All ten patients were hospitalized. Three deaths were reported from Kansas.”
Blue Bell voluntarily recalled all of its products and halted all production on April 20, 2015. Production resumed in Alabama, on July 20, as part of the five-phase plan to return its products to the stores. According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, the final phase will soon be underway.
“According to an earlier company press release, the fifth and final two-week phase will begin Jan. 18 when Blue Bell products will return to stores in middle and eastern Tennessee, the northern sections of Alabama and Georgia, and parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. On Jan. 25, the ice cream treats are scheduled to be delivered to Florida, southern Georgia and southern South Carolina.”
Although the 2015 recall was devastating to the 108-year-old ice cream company, as previously reported by the Inquisitr, Blue Bell resumed production and even arranged a delivery service before resuming shipping to stores after a comprehensive review of its operations, procedures, and equipment in cooperation with local and government authorities. Its largest plant Brenham, Texas, resumed operations in November. Now, government lawyers are trying to figure out what company executives knew about possible listeria contamination and what they did in response.
CBS News reported that records were uncovered showing that Blue Bell Creameries had evidence of listeria in its Oklahoma plant as far back as March, 2013.
“An FDA investigation found Listeria in all three of Blue Bell’s production plants located in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas. Records indicated that the company knew one plant was contaminated at least as early as 2013. The FDA investigation uncovered other troubling problems, including condensation dripping directly into ice cream and unsanitary equipment.”
CBS also quoted Gerald Bland, a worker from Blue Bell’s Brenham, Texas, factory regarding the unsanitary working conditions, including rainwater from the roof leaking onto the factory floor.
“On the wall by the 3-gallon machine, if it had rained real hard and water sat on the roof, it would just trickle down,” Bland said.
CBS also quoted worker Terry Schultz, who operated a machine in the Brenham Blue Bell factory for seven months leading up to the recall.
“A lot of times when I walked in there was just ice cream all over the floor,” Schultz said. “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 also said that complaining to management was pointless since nothing was done, and production was emphasized more than cleanliness.
“The response I got at one point was, is that all you’re going to do is come here and b*tch every afternoon?” Schultz recalled.
Blue Bell Creameries laid off over 1,400 employees and furloughed 1,400 more in May, 2015, due to the recall and the shutdown. The massive layoff was the first in the company’s history. Workers like Schultz maintain a lot could have been done to prevent it.
“And just no action was taken… I just feel sorry for the people that died and the people that got sick,” he said.
In a very informative article, the Dallas Morning News quoted a worker from a Blue Bell plant in a town where the name is ubiquitous.
“You got a family. You have to weigh your situation,” the anonymous worker said. “Is it worth me going in and trying to make them do something different and then I lose my job?… There was a lot I thought wasn’t right, but I didn’t know nobody I could go to. They own the whole town.”
“It’s all about the money,” Bland added.
[Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images]