A temporary closure prompted by a deadly Listeria outbreak linked to Blue Bell ice cream has forced layoffs and furloughs affecting more that 70 percent of the company’s employees. Blue Bell Creameries CEO and President Paul Kruse described the cuts, salary reductions and other cost-cutting measures as an “ agonizing decision” that he put off as long as possible.
In March, it was discovered that Listeria in the company’s ice cream has been responsible for 10 illnesses and three deaths since 2010. After Listeria was found in Blue Bell products made at two of the companies three facilities, production was halted at all three. A nationwide recall was issued for all of the company’s products. Health officials are still looking through records to see if other illnesses were caused by the same strain found in the ice cream.
After the outbreak, investigators from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) visited Blue Bell’s three plants in Brenham, Texas; Broken Arrow, Oklahoma an Sylacauga, Alabama. They found food safety violations at all of them.
Although Listeria is a known risk for dairy products and dairy products are the most common source of Listeria outbreaks, the company did not perform routine tests for the bacteria on food contact surfaces or further test samples positive for Listeria to determine if the strains were pathogenic. Investigators also found pipes dripping with condensate, inadequate sanitizing procedures and building and equipment flaws that made them difficult to clean properly.
Just over 1,000 of the company’s 3,900 employees will continue working at reduced pay to clean and restore the company’s facilities. About 1,400 will be on furlough receiving a portion of their salaries and another 1,450 will be laid off.
Because the company expects limited production capacity when it does resume operations, it is also suspending operations and laying off employees at its distribution centers: in Phoenix (2 branches) and Tucson, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; Indianapolis, Indiana; Kansas City and Wichita, Kansas; Louisville, Kentucky; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Las Vegas, Nevada; Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; and, Richmond, Virginia.