For the first time since listeria was discovered at Blue Bell's facilities in February 2015, the Brenham-based ice cream company has issued a report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration explaining what went wrong at its plants and how company officials are ensuring they'll never send out listeria-laced ice cream again.
Well, sort of.
The reports endeavor to "explain" the listeria infestation of the company's plants without ever taking any real responsibility for the years spent selling contaminated ice cream to the public.
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 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.
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.
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 its ice cream for the bacteria.
Now, more than a year after Blue Bell's listeria saga began, the ice cream company is back up and running, making more than 60 flavors at the three plants and shipping ice cream across the country once again.
Meanwhile, Blue Bell officials have finally produced reports attempting to explain how listeria got into the Brenham and Broken Arrow plants and then into the ice cream with "root cause reports" submitted to the FDA. (Traces of listeria were found at the Sylacauga plant but never tied directly to the ice cream.)
After all the ice cream was pulled off the market, some Blue Bell employees were furloughed, others were laid off and it was impossible to know what was going on inside the silent walls of the factories.
Well, now we have a basic idea — a lot of inspecting and a lot of cleaning. According to the FDA reports, which were submitted by Blue Bell in February and made public by the FDA last Thursday, Blue Bell went over the factories and brought in outside experts to figure out how listeria got into the facilities, conducting the investigation while also going through the required "remediation efforts" of state and federal health authorities.
When it came to the Brenham plant, they had trouble figuring out how the listeria got in. They tested potential sources along the production line, including equipment and specific pieces of machines, and there were presumptive positive listeria tests on some surfaces while others were found to be clean. Some of the contaminated equipment was taken apart and thoroughly cleaned, while other machines were removed from the facility entirely. But still, the actual source of contamination stayed a muddy mystery, according to the report.
"Although we took remedial action on individual equipment, it became evident that we would not be able to identify a single source to our entire Brenham facility," the report stated, indicating that this is why Blue Bell officials opted to scour the entire plant many times over.
They also reported that they reviewed their procedures to ensure that water is at the right temperature in the plant and that the cleaning and sanitation actually manages to, well, clean and sanitize the facility. Plus, they went over good hygiene practices with employees about keeping themselves clean and handling the equipment so that the machines and subsequently the product don't end up contaminated with bacteria like listeria.
And to top it all off, after years in which surfaces at the plant tested positive for listeria, Blue Bell officials finally set up a system to actually test the ice cream to make sure it's free of disease before sending it out. They refer to it as the "food contact surface and finished product testing program."
Novel idea, yes?
The report on the Broken Arrow plant drew many of the same conclusions about the importance of cleanliness and sanitation. However, in this case, the Blue Bell officials were able to actually say how the listeria got into the ice cream. Some equipment was being stored in a small room just off the production area. The room had a drain in the floor that connected to the drains in the rest of the facility, so even if workers scrubbed away any traces of listeria on the equipment on the main floor of the plant, it would wash into the drains and be released into the storm room, contaminating everything again, according to the Blue Bell report.
The report also highlighted two pieces of equipment, general equipment design and, of course, employee hygiene as the culprits behind the Broken Arrow facility's listeria problem. As they'd done in the Brenham report, Blue Bell officials went over their new dedication to training, cleaning and testing the areas and the ice cream itself.
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Basically, Blue Bell officials made it clear in both of these reports that things were not clean enough or entirely sanitary in their factories without ever actually saying that the listeria outbreak was caused by dirty factories and conditions that were unsanitary for making ice cream.
Both reports are remarkable pieces of work that way. The blame is laid on everyone and everything but the people in charge of the company.
After all, it was the sloppy employees, the cleaning jobs that never really sanitized the plants, the ways the machines worked and the ways the plants were built that were at fault, not the people who were running the plants who stayed miraculously unaware of positive listeria tests in the facilities that started popping up as early as 2013.
But now it's all cleaned up so everyone can eat Blue Bell again.