A report agreeing with the FDA report on Blue Bell Ice cream factory conditions aired on CBS News last night, revealing that former Blue Bell Ice Cream workers said management allegedly ignored complaints about unsanitary conditions in the factory in Texas. Blue Bell ice cream was linked to a multistate, deadly Listeria monocytogenes outbreak earlier this year.
In that outbreak, at least ten people in four states were sickened and three people died. Blue Bell had to recall millions of gallons of ice cream and all of its plants were shut down for months.
One of the former workers told CBS news that “A lot of times when I walked in there was just ice cream all over the floor. Sometimes the machines would just go haywire, the product would just continually run through the conveyor belt and just drop right on the floor.” The ice cream was not cleaned up, so it stayed on the floor, at room temperature, creating the perfect environment for Listeria monocytogenes growth.
Another worker at that plant said he was told to pour ice cream and fruit juices that dripped off the machine into barrels of ice cream mix. In addition, water was everywhere in the plant. Listeria bacteria thrive in wet environments.
The FDA found multiple violations in Blue Bell’s plant in Brenham, Texas, finding condensation dripping into the ice cream and dirty equipment. Listeria monocytogenes bacteria related to the outbreak strains was found in the products made at the Texas plant. The bacteria was also found in ice cream manufactured in the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma plant. The Texas plant is still closed.
Inspection reports at the Sylacauga, Alabama plant found multiple food safety violations, including equipment not being kept clean and damaged ceilings over food preparation areas. Inspections at the Brenham, Texas plant found a “failure to manufacture foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential for growth of microorganisms.” And inspections at the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma plant found the same thing: that the ice cream was not manufactured under conditions needed to minimize contamination.
One of the workers said that there were no “surprise” inspections at the Texas plant. Management would warn workers that an inspection was about to take place, giving them about 20 minutes to clean up.
Ice cream was not considered a food likely to be blamed for a Listeria monocytogenes outbreak. But it can easily support that bacteria, since Listeria bacteria are not destroyed by freezing and can grow at refrigerator temperatures.
The symptoms of Listeria monocytogenes food poisoning are similar to the flu, which can make diagnosis difficult. And it can take weeks or months for those symptoms to appear. The symptoms of listeriosis include flu-like fever and muscle aches, upset stomach, diarrhea, stiff neck, headache, loss of balance, confusion, or convulsions. Pregnant women are usually only mildly ill with flu symptoms, but listeriosis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and infection in the newborn baby.