Money may not solve everything, but it sure looks like it has fixed a bunch of Blue Bell's problems.
Less than a month after Fort Worth oil magnate Sid Bass agreed to bail out Blue Bell, injecting $125 million in exchange for one-third ownership of the company, Blue Bell is just oozing with more good news. Specifically, one of the Blue Bell facilities has been cleared for production. That means, despite that whole listeria mess — the one that sickened at least 10 people, three of whom died, according to the Centers for Disease Control — Blue Bell ice cream could be back on the shelves before you know it.
We just have to say that this is one hell of a fast turnaround for the beleaguered company.
Ever since a listeria outbreak was first traced back to Blue Bell earlier this year, the "little creamery in Brenham" has been struggling to survive. As we reported in our July 2 cover story, "A Sticky Mess" , listeria was discovered in Blue Bell products by South Carolina state health department officials in February.
Listeria is a particularly nasty and pervasive pathogen that can be found almost everywhere, including in soil, water and food, and unlike other bacteria, it has evolved so that it thrives in cold, moist areas like refrigerators and ice cream factories. Once the ice cream sample tested positive for listeria, the Food and Drug Administration investigators swept in and combed the three factories located in Brenham, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and Sylacauga, Alabama. FDA investigators discovered over the course of their examination of Blue Bell that surfaces at the company's facilities had been testing positive for listeria for years, but Blue Bell never tested the ice cream for the bacteria.
Things continued to go south for the company. In March, Blue Bell issued its first recall in 108 years of business and followed up with a series of small recalls as efforts to clean the factories and get listeria out of the production line failed repeatedly.Finally, Blue Bell’s president and CEO Paul Kruse pulled all Blue Bell products off the market on April 20. By then it was known that 10 people in four states (Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas) had contracted listeria, and three of them had died. An FDA investigation subsequently revealed Blue Bell facilities had been testing positive for listeria since 2013. Officials learned through genome sequencing of the disease samples that Blue Bell ice cream had likely been making people sick with listeria since 2010.
Things only got worse from there. In May, Kruse announced Blue Bell was cutting 1, 450 jobs and furloughing 1, 400 jobs from a workforce of about 3,900 employees. The company's revenue was expected to drop from about $680 million in 2014 to $500 million this year, according to the Dallas Morning News.
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Meanwhile, analysts were predicting that Blue Bell's suffering (there wasn't much talk about the suffering of those who actually contracted listeria) was far from over since the company was stuck with all three of its factories shut down while the company scoured the plants and tried to figure out once and for all how they would go about making listeria-free ice cream again. Company officials also entered an agreement with the state health departments in Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama that they would institute a new "test and hold system" on Blue Bell products — that's right, after all of that bad press the company is finally testing the ice cream — and wouldn't start making ice cream again until the state health departments signed off on the facility located in the state. Blue Bell reps stated that it would likely be months before the company could get its frozen treats back on the market.
That was about the time that Bass swooped in to save the "little creamery in Brenham" — in exchange for a chunk of the company, of course, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In July, shortly after Bass stated that he was investing in Blue Bell because it's a "quality product," Blue Bell started making ice cream again at the Sylacauga factory, a sensible move since this factory is both the smallest and had the least positive surface tests for listeria, according to the FDA reports. On Wednesday the Alabama Department of Public Health announced Blue Bell was allowed to resume production and start selling ice cream made at the Alabama plant.
Blue Bell lovers are likely rejoicing right now — despite the whole listeria thing, there are still a ton of devoted fans. Maybe they should consider sending a thank you note to Bass for taking his little gamble. (Though arguably, considering the fierce brand loyalty to Blue Bell, the Bass investment was more like betting on a one-horse horse race than an actual gamble.) Now, less than a month after that cash injection, Blue Bell's Alabama-produced products could be back on the shelves before we know what hit us. It's amazing what a $125 million can do.