Two recent announcements from Blue Bell Creameries about new food safety measures following the deadly Listeria outbreak linked to its ice cream have people wondering: has the company recently found Listeria at its Texas ice cream plant or not?
The short answer is yes. So why the confusion?
On January 7, the company posted a statement on its website called “An update on our enhanced procedures at our production facilities.” That statement led some media outlets, including this one, to believe the company’s new food safety measures were helping to identify areas where Listeria was present enabling them to clean and sanitize the areas to prevent contamination of ice cream.
But the next day, January 8, the company removed that announcement and replaced it with another entitled: “Clarification regarding enhanced testing by Blue Bell Creameries.” It reads:
“To keep our customers informed, we gave an update yesterday, January 7, 2016, on the progress we have made with our enhanced procedures in our production facilities. Unfortunately in some media reports this information has been misstated.
In our facilities, we have identified suspected areas where bacteria may be present but in no case have we confirmed Listeria monocytogenes.
The entire purpose of our enhanced environmental testing is to identify locations where bacteria could be found in our facility in order to properly clean and sanitize the surface and prevent contamination.
We have tested and will continue to test every batch of ice cream produced. No products produced have tested positive. No products are shipped to stores until tests confirm they are safe. We will continue to work closely with our regulatory agencies, as we have throughout this process.”
Why then did the company tell the Texas Department of State Health Services that it had found Listeria at its plant in Brenham a couple of times in the last month, according to health department spokeswoman Carrie Williams? The company told the health department it found Listeria on non food contact surfaces and addressed the problem, Williams told Food Poisoning Bulletin in an email today. Recent tests conducted by the department on environmental and product samples have all been negative, she said.
So why did Blue Bell say “in no case have we confirmed Listeria monocytogenes?” A look at the company’s past track record may provide the answer.
About a year ago, health officials discovered the Blue Bell outbreak after they noticed five patients hospitalized for unrelated causes at hospital in Wichita Kansas all contracted listeriosis. Four of those sickened were able to provide a food history and all of them reported having milkshakes made with Blue Bell “Scoops,” a single serving product, while they were in the hospital.
Health officials then used DNA fingerprints of the Listeria monocytongenes outbreak strain to look for other cases. They found seven others dating back to 2010.
As the investigation of Blue Bell’s longstanding Listeria problem came to light, documents began to surface. Among them, documents that revealed the company was aware of the presence of Listeria in its plants.
At its facility in Broken Arrow, Okla. where ice cream served at the Kansas hospital was made, Listeria was isolated from samples of non-contact food surfaces five times in 2013, 10 times in 2014, once in January 2015 and once in February 2015. Listeria was also found after the outbreak was discovered in environmental samples collected by the FDA on March 24, 2015 and March 25, 2015.
The documents show that when Blue Bell tests turned up positives for Listeria, the company did not conduct further tests to determine if it was Listeria monocytogenes, a pathogen that can, and did in this case, cause severe illness and death.
Because they never tested for it, it would have been technically true for Blue Bell to say in 2013 “in no case have we confirmed Listeria monocytogenes.” So the clarification raises more questions than it answers. Why say “suspected Listeria” in your statement to the public after telling the health department tests were positive for Listeria? Did Blue Bell test the Listeria they found this time and determine it was not Listeria monocytogenes? And why not be more direct while under investigation by the Justice Department?