October 22, 2020

Blue Bell Pleads Guilty in Ice Cream Listeria Monocytogenes Outbreak

Blue Bell pleads guilty in ice cream Listeria monocytogenes outbreak and pays $19.35 million. And a former company president has been charged in connection with a scheme to allegedly cover up the incident, according to the Justice Department. The charge is that the company shipped contaminated and adulterated product.

Blue Bell Pleads Guilty in Ice Cream Listeria Monocytogenes Outbreak

That deadly outbreak covered a five year time span from 2010 to 2015 that sickened 10 people. All of the patients were hospitalized. Three people who lived in Kansas died. Eight of the patients were hospitalized when they were served contaminated Blue Bell ice cream. The outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes were found in ice cream made at the Blue Bell plants in Brenham, Texas and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. This outbreak was long and complicated; we have put together a timeline of the incidents.

In a plea agreement filed with a criminal information in federal court in Austin, Texas, Blue Bell agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products and to pay a criminal fine and forfeiture totaling $17.25 million. Blue Bell also agreed to pay an addition $2.1 million to resolve a civil False Claims allegation regarding ice cream products manufactured under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities. This is the largest ever amount paid in resolution of a food safety matter.

Blue Bell’s former president, Paul Kruse, was charged with seven felony counts related to his “alleged efforts to conceal from customers what the company knew about the Listeria contamination.” Those counts were dismissed without opposition from the government.

Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division said “American consumers rely on food manufacturers to take necessary steps to provide products that are safe to eat. The Department of Justice will take appropriate action where food manufacturers ignore poor factory conditions or fail to abide by required recall procedures when problems are discovered.”

Texas officials notified Blue Bell in February 2015 that two ice cream products from the Brenham facility tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. Blue Bell directed its delivery route drivers to remove the remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, but the company didn’t recall them or issue any formal communication to customers about the problem.

Then in March 2015, FDA tests linked to strain of Listeria in one of the Blue Bell products to a strain that sickened five patients at a Kansas hospital. Recall notices were issued on March 13, 2015.  FDA inspections in March and April 2015 found sanitation issues at both Blue Bell facilities, including problems with the hot water supply. Blue Bell temporarily closed all of its plants in April 2015 to clean and update them. Their facilities were opened again in late 2015. The notice states that “Blue Bell has taken significant steps to enhance sanitation processes and enact a program to test products for Listeria prior to shipment.”

According to the Justice Department, Kruse allegedly orchestrated a scheme to deceive some Blue Bell customers after he learned that some products were positive for Listeria monocytogenes. He directed employees to tell customers who asked why the products were removed that there had “been an unspecified issue with a manufacturing machine instead of that samples of the product had tested positive for Listeria.” The notice states that “The allegations filed against Kruse merely assert that crimes have been committed. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

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