The hits just keep on coming for Blue Bell. Just a week after it was discovered that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the company over the 2015 listeria outbreak, the actual listeria is back.
Blue Bell has been struggling to right itself ever since 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. FDA officials also learned through genome sequencing of the disease samples that Blue Bell ice cream had likely been making people sick with listeria since 2010.
For a little while, it looked like they were going to pull this thing off. The "little creamery in Brenham" started making ice cream again in August and soon Blue Bell was returning to gorcery store freezers with each newly restored flavor being announced as if it was a product rollout, and not the results of having had to shut down all three of Blue Bell's facilities in Brenham, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and Sylacauga, Alabama because they were contaminated with listeria. 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 itself for the bacteria.
On Thursday the company officials admitted that they have once again found traces of listeria in the Brenham plant. To Blue Bell's credit, this time around the company actually announced the findings on the Blue Bell website on Thursday. After highlighting how Blue Bell has changed and improved its policies on employee training, cleaning and, you know, testing for things like listeria in the plant, Blue Bell got to the point and announced that traces of listeria have once again been found:
We are pleased that our enhanced environmental and product testing procedures are working. We have identified locations where suspected Listeria species may be present in our facility, and we continue to extensively clean and sanitize those areas and make additional enhancements to the facility and our procedures based on the environmental test results. To confirm that our robust environmental program is effective, and that our “seek and destroy” goals are being achieved, we expect to periodically find microbiological indications in our facilities. Since our plants reopened, we have tested and will continue to test every batch of ice cream produced, and no products produced have tested positive for Listeria.
On the upside, this time around Blue Bell officials are testing both the surfaces of the plant and the actual ice cream, so at least there's that. However, it does look like the whole triumphant return celebration might have been a tad premature. Most people have been giddy to see the ice cream back in grocery stores but we have to wonder how eagerly they're going to dig into the stuff knowing the plant that made it still holds traces of listeria.
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Update 1/12/16 at 1:40 p.m.: After reporting this story, Blue Bell spokeswoman Jenny Van Dorf got in touch with us asking us to change our story – written based on the release Blue Bell posted on its website last Thursday – stating that Blue Bell did not actually say there was listeria in the Brenham plant, but only that they had “identified areas where suspected listeria may be present and have enhanced procedures in place to clean and sanitize suspected areas.”
We replied that we would gladly issue a clarification, and asked if Van Dorf would explain how one can find “suspected listeria” but can then not find listeria itself. We still haven't heard back on that.
However, we did talk with the Texas Department of State Health Services today about Blue Bell's recent statement and learned that Blue Bell reported to the health department that the company had found evidence of listeria last month on surfaces like drains and floors. “We were made aware of a couple of instances of environmental positives for listeria species at the Brenham plant over the last month, none of which were from food contact surfaces, and the instances were addressed,” Williams stated in an email to the Press.
So there you have it. Despite reports from various media outlets emphasizing that Blue Bell has only detected “signs of listeria” and that none of those signs were found in the ice cream, the state health department has confirmed that Blue Bell did indeed test positive for the listeria itself in its plant, and this happened last month. On the bright side, Blue Bell is definitely being proactive. When listeria was found before the Food and Drug Administration reports show that it took the company significantly longer to get around to testing the ice cream and talking publicly about the bacteria found in the plant.