Blue Bell to Start Test Production at the Alabama Plant
Photo by Max Burkhalter

Blue Bell to Start Test Production at the Alabama Plant

Only months after Blue Bell yanked all of its products off the market due to a listeria outbreak linked to the Brenham-based company's ice cream, Blue Bell officials have announced they'll start making ice cream again at the Alabama plant.

As we wrote in our cover story last week, Blue Bell issued its first recall in 108 years of business in March and 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 10 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 a pathogen that can be found almost everywhere, including 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. Once that's done, the company is putting a "test and hold" system into place in which they will make ice cream and test it before sending it out.

Blue Bell announced Wednesday that the Sylacauga plant will soon be churning out ice cream again with test runs at the Sylacauga plant planned to start up in the next few weeks. On Wednesday Blue Bell officials announced plans to start test producing ice cream. They outlined the plans in a release:

"When production resumes at the Sylacauga plant, it will be on a limited basis as the company seeks to confirm that new procedures, facility enhancements and employee training have been effective. Ice cream produced will be closely monitored and tested. Upon completion of this trial period, Blue Bell will begin building inventory to return to the market. There is no firm date for the test production to begin, and no firm date for when ice cream sales will resume."

Vice President Greg Bridges popped up in the release with a quote about how Blue Bell employees — the ones not laid off — have been "working diligently" to get the factories cleaned up and maintained that the focus is "to ensure the public that when [Blue Bell] products return to market, they are safe." This time there was no comment from Kruse on the matter. 

Meanwhile, it's unclear when the other two plants will be running again or when any Blue Bell products will actually be back on the shelves. Broken Arrow had a lot of issues, according to the FDA reports, and the Brenham facility is so large the company has already said it will likely be the last factory to start production. Thus those who have been dreaming of Blue Bell all this time will have to just keep dreaming or, you know, they can just eat something else. 

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