The people running Blue Bell have really cornered the market on magical thinking. Post-listeria, some might have steered clear of any marketing campaign that questioned what exactly is in a half-gallon tub of the company's ice cream, but Blue Bell has gone in the opposite direction, announcing a new "mystery flavor" that hits shelves on Friday.
It's a brand-new flavor that purportedly will “have your taste buds two-steppin’" in honor of National Ice Cream Month, according to a company Facebook post.
So yeah, more than a year after the 109-year-old Brenham-based company went into a tailspin after its ice cream tested positive for listeria, Blue Bell is still treating the gradually expanding offering of frozen treat flavors as cause for celebration.
It's almost as if the whole listeria mess that made about a dozen people sick and may have killed at least three of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, never happened.
This time last year, the future was looking grim for the "little creamery in Brenham." In February 2015, officials from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control were inspecting a Blue Bell distribution center when someone pulled out a box of Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and Great Divide Bars to test for bacteria.
The ice cream tested positive for listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria that can cause food poisoning or meningitis. The elderly, the pregnant and those with weak immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the disease. Listeria is a tough bacteria 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.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration 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 its ice cream for the bacteria.
The company was forced to issue its first recall the next month because of the listeria outbreak in its facilities, as we wrote in our July 2015 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, 2015.
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. 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.
Even as this information was revealed and Blue Bell laid off 1,450 of 3,900 employees and furloughed about 1,400, public sympathy leaned heavily toward the company. Blue Bell survived the disaster by trading a third of the company for a cash infusion from Fort Worth oil man Sid Bass, but what's been striking is that the company hasn't had to work very hard to recover its reputation.
After that, it was as if everyone involved had collective, selective amnesia. Blue Bell's coming back to shelves last fall was greeted with giddy glee, as we noted, and ever since, the ice cream company has been making announcements about returning and newly concocted flavors as if this is just a return from vacation. Earlier this year, the company finally submitted a report to the FDA that managed to "explain" how listeria infested the company's plants without taking any real responsibility for the countless gallons of contaminated ice cream shipped out over the years, as we reported.
In fact, it's been an impressive act. Even in the face of a reported investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, Blue Bell has carried on as if everything is just fine. The company was vaguely contrite when news of the contamination broke, and ever since then, it's been engaging in a not-very-elaborate game of pretending the listeria thing didn't happen.
So it's time to celebrate or something, because there's a new Blue Bell creation on the shelves. And no, the company has already said it isn't Pecan Pralines ‘n Cream, which makes sense since that flavor has been around for years.