As we watch Blue Bell whip up excitement about bringing its ice cream back to grocery shelves after a massive listeria outbreak, we keep thinking how convenient it must be to have a very short memory.
It's been strange to watch how Blue Bell is handling the process of returning its ice cream to the market. Now, we get why Blue Bell officials aren't walking around wearing sackcloth and ashes as they prepare to come back from the listeria mess that shut down all three Blue Bell plants in April, but we've still been surprised to see how Blue Bell is spinning this relaunch as a super exciting event.
Keep in mind that the Brenham-based company was forced to issue its first recall in 108 years of business in March because of a listeria outbreak in its facilities, as we wrote in our July cover story, "A Sticky Mess." Blue Bell officials 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.
Listeria is nasty stuff, 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. Still, the company was circling the drain until Fort Worth oil man Sid Bass stepped in with an injection of $125 million in exchange for a one-third stake in the company.
It was in no uncertain terms a lifeline for Blue Bell. Earlier this month, company officials announced plans to start making ice cream again at the Sylacauga factory, a good call on their part since the Alabama factory is both the smallest and had the least positive surface tests for listeria, according to the FDA reports.
So, the ice cream will soon be back on the market, but it's been kind of surreal to watch how Blue Bell is actually spinning this thing as a triumphant comeback akin to Judy Garland's famed concerts at Carnegie Hall. Blue Bell officials are working seriously hard to turn the return of Blue Bell products to the grocery stores into a relaunch, a true event. It started last Friday with a tweet. After announcing in recent weeks that the ice cream would return to stores by the end of August or the beginning of September, Blue Bell announced the scheduled Monday "unveiling" via Twitter on Friday:
We’ll unveil the first flavor on Monday. Can you guess what it will be?— Blue Bell Ice Cream (@ILoveBlueBell) August 21, 2015
At the same time, the company Twitter advised people to follow its new Instagram account to get a "sneak peak" at what's coming back first:
Follow us on Instagram https://t.co/sqbPRttCQ5 for a sneak peek at our product line-up when we return to select areas beginning August 31!— Blue Bell Ice Cream (@ILoveBlueBell) August 21, 2015
That's right, Blue Bell has created an Instagram account for this very special occasion. The first photo posted was of an empty bowl. The second post showed containers of Blue Bell's Homemade Vanilla. Yep, in the most unsurprising move in the entire Blue Bell listeria saga, the first ice cream flavor definitely returning to shelves is the Homemade Vanilla, of course.
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The least surprising part of all of this is that the bit is totally working. Blue Bell's Instagram already has more than 6,000 followers and people are awaiting those brown and white trucks packed with the company's frozen treats with giddy delight.
Considering how the public responded to the news of the outbreak in the first place, the joyful anticipation isn't exactly a shock. While the company was clearly struggling in the wake of the discovery of a listeria outbreak tied to its ice cream, there's been a core of unhesitatingly devoted followers. They shrugged off the news that Blue Bell had been grappling with listeria in its facilities since at least 2013, according to the Food and Drug Administration reports. The faithful didn't seem terribly worried about those who had gotten sick and the handful of Kansas hospital patients who had died after eating listeria-laced ice cream either.
Nope, it was all about when the "national ice cream of Texas" was hitting the shelves again, and now the ice cream will be back on August 31.