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Blue Bell Is Ready to Drop Its More Stringent Testing for Listeria

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As we roll inexorably toward a brand-new year, it's a good time to forgive, forget and stop worrying about listeria contamination.

At least that's what the owners of Blue Bell think, apparently. Even though it was only last year that the company was grappling with a listeria outbreak that sickened at least ten people, three of whom died, and nearly destroyed the company, Blue Bell has asked federal regulators to allow it to stop using the pricey precautions that were put in place to ensure that no products that might even potentially be tainted with listeria would hit the market, the Houston Chronicle is reporting.

It makes sense from the money perspective, but considering the company's very recent history, we have to wonder if it's the best idea to let the Brenham-based creamery dial down any part of the rigorous testing put in place in the wake of the listeria outbreak discovered at the plant last year. (We've asked Blue Bell for its take on the matter. We'll update when we hear back.)

Before the outbreak Blue Bell had a “plant environmental testing plan” in which a private laboratory regularly examined swabs from the factories to make sure the buildings were free of pathogens, as we noted in the 2015 cover story "A Sticky Mess." Despite all the tests, Blue Bell only sampled areas in the factory that didn’t have direct contact with ice cream, according to Food and Drug Administration records.

After the listeria was found in Blue Bell products, the process changed. Since the outbreak was formally declared in April 2015, Blue Bell has been testing its frozen treats and destroying any product that has shown any possible indications of listeria, according to the Chron. However, since this process is quite expensive — allegedly resulting in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of cartons of ice cream worth millions of dollars — Blue Bell wants to stop doing this, and is proposing to change the testing so products are destroyed only if there is a confirmation of listeria contamination.

This may sound reasonable enough on the face of it, but it's worth noting a few things. For one, listeria is particularly nasty. It mostly affects those with weakened immune systems, particularly those who are very young or old or are pregnant. However, the real problem with listeria is that the bacteria thrives in cold, damp places like ice cream factories and can be almost impossible to get rid of. In some cases people have had to simply burn factories down and start over to get rid of the contaminant.

The other point worth noting is that Blue Bell officials were not hapless victims of this listeria contamination. Federal health investigators found that Blue Bell's own records showed it was testing positive for listeria on samples taken from the “non-food contact areas” on equipment used to make ice cream and on other surfaces, but the company wasn't testing the ice cream itself, as we've previously reported.

In addition, it doesn't seem like Blue Bell has been able to entirely correct the listeria problem since all of this happened last year. In September the company issued another recall for ice cream made at its plant in Sylacauga, Alabama, in July and August. Then in October there was yet another recall, this time for ice cream made with contaminated cookie dough.

But despite all this, Blue Bell officials still think it's time to put the past behind them and stop with all these intensive safety inspections. They've been working for months to persuade the feds to let them only destroy ice cream upon confirmation of contamination. They've also been working with an outside laboratory to develop testing requirements that will satisfy the FDA and not cost the company money it really can't afford to lose, the Chronicle reports. (We've asked the FDA for information on all of this. We'll update as soon as we hear back.)

The company's lawyer insists in a letter to the FDA that Blue Bell has done enough:

"Given the extent of the 2015 company-wide recall, it was reasonable for Blue Bell to begin with an extra cautious approach," the company's attorney, Joseph Levitt, wrote to the FDA, according to the Chronicle. "But it is now time to transition to the industry norm, having established they have an effective listeria prevention program in each of its three facilities."

After all, Blue Bell detected that cookie dough issue just a few months ago, the lawyer argues. But does catching one potential listeria outbreak mean the company is ready to get back to business as usual, albeit with a much more stringent system in place than the one it had before?

That's the sticky question at the heart of all of this.

Updated at 11:05 a.m. Wednesday, January 4: The FDA got back to us on Wednesday with a brief statement on the matter:

"We have received the company’s request and will respond directly to them," FDA spokeswoman Megan McSeveney told the Houston Press.

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