Blue Bell is Back! (Never Mind That Whole Listeria Thing)
Photo by Max Burkhalter
Well, that was quick.
Just nine months after Blue Bell was forced to issue the company's first recall in its 108-year history the cartons of ice cream are back on the shelves, (some) Blue Bell employees are back to work, the public is acting as if the whole listeria outbreak was a holy test and all three factories, including the "little creamery in Brenham," are pumping out ice cream. It's almost as if the whole thing never happened. Almost.
Blue Bell's Brenham factory officially started up again on Wednesday. The company made the announcement with a release posted on the company website. In the video accompanying the release, Blue Bell President Paul Kruse spoke briefly about how he was grateful to the company's customers for being patient and supportive of Blue Bell while the company dealt with its little problem (you know, the listeria thing we wrote about in our July cover story, "A Sticky Mess") . The video highlights longtime employees who got to go back to work this week.
It's a clever approach really. The folksy guitar music twangs while men and women who have worked at Blue Bell, in some cases for decades, take a turn thanking the public for their jobs. This way, the focus stays on the jobs the little creamery in Brenham is providing — though so far only about 700 of the 1,400 employees put on furlough earlier this year have returned to work, despite the emergency investment from Sid Bass earlier this year — and not on the listeria outbreak or the conditions that caused it.
For those with short memories, it was discovered that Blue Bell ice cream contained listeria back in February when South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control officials were inspecting a Blue Bell distribution center. Someone pulled out a box of Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and Great Divide Bars and tested for bacteria. The ice cream tested positive for listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria which can cause food poisoning or meningitis.
By backtracking and working with the Texas State Department of Health Services, South Carolina officials soon discovered the contaminated ice cream came from Brenham. Then it turned out that five people in a Kansas hospital were all infected with listeria-laced cups of Blue Bell ice cream they were fed upon arriving at the hospital. Listeria was traced to ice cream made in the company's Broken Arrow facility as well. Blue Bell officials tried to limit the fallout with a few small initial recalls, but by April the company had yanked all of its products off the shelves.
A Food and Drug Administration investigation subsequently revealed Blue Bell facilities had been testing positive for listeria since 2013, information that Blue Bell wasn't required to report since the listeria was found in places around the factory but wasn't found in the ice cream— because the company never actually tested the ice cream. Officials learned through genome sequencing of the disease samples that Blue Bell ice cream had likely been making people sick with listeria since 2010.
Ultimately, the FDA found listeria at all three plants, located in Sylacauga, Alabama; Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; and Brenham. The company shut the plants down to clean and sanitize its three factories until there were no more traces of listeria and to reconfigure the facilities to eliminate conditions that have allowed listeria to grow and thrive in the factories in the first place. About 1,450 of about 3,900 employees were laid off and the other 1,400 were furloughed. 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.
And the thing is, all the while, people in Brenham and Blue Bell fans from all over the place were doggedly supporting Blue Bell, acting as if the company that makes the "national ice cream of Texas" couldn't have known that they were potentially shipping out listeria-laced ice cream across the country. And maybe they didn't know, but one would think that when one gets a positive listeria swab on the floor in front of the freezer where the ice cream is stored and on surfaces near where the ice cream is manufactured that a person would then turn around and test the ice cream itself. And yet even though the FDA reports state that Blue Bell facilities tested positive for listeria, company officials seemingly never got around to testing the ice cream until the state health departments started testing it for them.
But they certainly will be testing the ice cream from now on. The Sylacauga plant resumed operation in July and the Broken Arrow facility started back up in September, and now Brenham is running again, albeit on a limited basis. It's unclear when the Brenham-made ice cream will hit the market, but the ice cream itself "will be closely monitored and tested," according to the release.
Of course, in Blue Bell's case that won't matter since the company is now required to test and monitor its ice cream and the facilities where that ice cream is produced. After all, the public seems to be happy and willing to forget about the whole listeria mess this time, but it seems likely that even the most adoring customers would have trouble getting over such a thing twice.
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