CBS News is reporting that the Department of Justice has started an investigation into Blue Bell after their ice cream was linked to a deadly Listeria monocytogenes outbreak that killed three people. An FDA investigation found the pathogenic bacteria in two of Blue Bell’s three production plants in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas. The company allegedly knew that one plant was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes in 2013, according to records.
The Blue Bell ice cream outbreak was the tenth largest outbreak of 2015, sickening at least 10 people in four states. Three people who were in a Kansas hospital died of their infections after consuming ice cream made by Blue Bell. The company recalled all of its products in April 2015 and closed down all of its production for weeks.
FDA inspectors found several violations of HACCP and food safety laws at the plants, including unsanitary equipment and condensation dripping directly into the ice cream as it was being made. In addition, rain water from the roof leaked into the facility. Complaints to management about the problems did not lead to any changes. Blue Bell was notified of “improper cleaning” and continued to ship ice cream from their facilities. FDA’s Form 483 details violations of the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act during the inspection process. You can read those reports about the Sylacauga, Alabama; Brenham, Texas; and the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma plants at the FDA site.
The Department of Justice is trying to discover what Blue Bell Management knew about the problems in their plants, and when they knew it. This information is crucial, since other executives of corporations have been convicted and sentenced after shipping contaminated food. This year, executives of the Peanut Corporation of America were found guilty and sentenced to prison after it was discovered they knew about contamination in their plants and still shipped product contaminated with Salmonella bacteria.
Stewart Parnell of PCA was sentenced to 28 years in prison. His brother was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The PCA Salmonella outbreak sickened more than 700 people and killed nine. Parnell is now infamous for his email that read, “just ship it,” after an employee questioned positive Salmonella test results.
The firm that underwrites Food Poisoning Bulletin filed a lawsuit against Blue Bell on behalf of a man who was sickened with Listeria monocytogenes after consuming their ice cream. He was an administrator at a Houston retirement community that was one of Blue Bell’s customers. He suffered Listeria meningitis and was unconscious for six days. He now has permanent neurological damage and had to relearn how to walk, talk, swallow, and move.
The symptoms of listeriosis, the illness caused by this bacteria, include stiff neck, fever, headache, upset stomach, diarrhea, loss of balance, flu-like symptoms, and confusion. Pregnant women may only have a mild flu-like illness, but this bacterial infection can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and infection in the newborn baby.
What makes this illness even more difficult to diagnose is that it can take weeks or months, up to 70 days, for symptoms to appear after a person is exposed to the bacteria. The average length of time between exposure and illness is about three weeks. Young children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk for serious complications from this infection. Listeria monocytogenes food poisoning causes an estimated 500 deaths every year in the Untied States.