In the wake of an outbreak of foodborne illnesses that has been tied to three deaths, documents reveal Blue Bell Creameries was aware as far back as 2013 that the bacteria Listeria had been detected in one of its plants.
In April, Blue Bell announced it made the decision to recall all its products after an enhanced sampling program found gallons of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream contained Listeria monocytogenes a month earlier.
A listeriosis outbreak traced to Blue Bell has been tied to 10 people who have been hospitalized, including three deaths in Kansas, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pregnant women and newborns, adults who are at least 65 years old and people who suffer from weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to listeriosis, a life-threatening infection, the disease prevention agency said.
“This is a complex and ongoing multistate outbreak investigation of listeriosis illnesses occurring over several years," the CDC says on its website.
Listeria Present Earlier at Blue Bell Plant
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) documents identified the presence of Listeria at Blue Bell’s Oklahoma plant as early as March 2013. FDA referenced five samples of Listeria subspecies in 2013, 10 samples in 2014 and two samples in the early part of this year, according to documents that were released May 7. The bacteria was found in such places as the floor in front of a freezer, a catwalk behind a flavor tank and water hose in front of a pint filler.
The FDA said it was unaware of the Listeria findings before conducting its own inspection this year, The Associated Press reported. "Although Blue Bell's testing did identify listeria, the company did not further identify the strain to determine if it was pathogenic," FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said in the article.
Blue Bell spokesman Joe Robertson told the AP the company would clean and sanitize an area that tested for positive for Listeria. He indicated the company would resume operations once that same area tested negative for the bacteria.
Delays in Resuming Operations
The outbreak has caused Blue Bell to close its production plants in a number of states and stop making ice cream. The company can’t say when it will resume operations, although it predicts it won’t be for at least several months.
The ice cream maker first initiated a limited recall in March, the same month it was divulged that local, state and federal officials were collaborating to investigate an outbreak of listeriosis. On April 20, Blue Bell announced that it was recalling all its products.
Blue Bell said it has collected around eight million gallons of ice cream and related products from retailers, institutions and other outlets.
The company has closed its production plants in Brenham, Texas, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and Sylacauga, Alabama. Among other measures, the plants are making repairs, cleaning and sanitizing equipment, and eliminating potential contamination pathways, the ice cream maker said. Roughly 750 plant operating employees recently attended training on controlling the plant environment to prevent bacteria.
Commenting in April on the contamination issues, Blue Bell CEO Paul Kruse said, “We are heartbroken about this situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers."
The 4-year-old Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is intended to prevent deadly outbreaks such as the one tied to Blue Bell, but FDA still hasn’t finalized a number of regulations that are considered cornerstone provisions of the sweeping law.