Blue Bell is chock-full of good news lately. A little more than a week after the company announced that Fort Worth oil billionaire Sid Bass was bailing the company out to the tune of $125 million, the Brenham-based company has started making ice cream again at its factory in Sylacauga, Alabama. It's an impressive turnaround for the "little creamery in Brenham."
As we wrote in our cover story earlier this month, Blue Bell issued its first recall in 108 years of business in March 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 ten people in four states (Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas) had contracted listeria, and three of them had died. A Food and Drug Administration 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.
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Listeria is a 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. 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.
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. Blue Bell officials announced plans to start 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 afternoon, Blue Bell sent out a Tweet confirming the machines had been "cranked up." From here, the company will institute the new "test and hold system" that was part of the deal it made with state health officials in Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma to ensure product safety when it returned to production. (Before the listeria outbreak went public, Blue Bell never tested its ice cream for listeria or other pathogens.) So the company is making ice cream again. However, the devotees who are already making space in their freezers should probably calm down. There's still no telling when the ice cream will actually be back on the shelves.
Exciting news from our Sylacauga, Ala., facility! Today our machines cranked up and we began evaluating our enhanced production processes.— Blue Bell Ice Cream (@ILoveBlueBell) July 22, 2015