Blue Bell is about to be back.
Blue Bell is about to be back.
Photo by Max Burkhalter

Blue Bell Will be Back on Houston Shelves (In September)

Those jonesing for Blue Bell ice cream will get to satisfy their cravings pretty soon. That's right, less than five months after the Brenham-based company recalled all of its frozen products and shut down its factories in the face of a listeria outbreak, the little creamery in Brenham is rising back up again, Phoenix-like:

For those with very short memories, let's review: As we wrote in our July cover story, "A Sticky Mess", 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 ten 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 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 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. Blue Bell officials announced plans to start making ice cream again at the Sylacauga factory, a sensible move since this factory is both the smallest and had the least positive surface tests for listeria, according to the FDA reports. 

Shortly after the full recall, Kruse announced he was laying off 1,450 of 3,900 employees and furloughing 1,400 while they scoured the factories and worked to get rid of every trace of listeria. At the time company officials said that it would take months to get the factories running again and to have Blue Bell back on the shelves, but that was before Fort Worth oil man Sid Bass swooped in and traded $125 million for a third of a stake in the company in June. Within a month Blue Bell's Sylacauga plant was cleared by the Alabama state health department officials to start making ice cream, and now the ice cream is in trucks and heading for grocery store freezers. Soon it'll be like this whole listeria thing never happened.

But Houstonians who have been getting by with their own hand-cranked ice cream had best hold off before chucking those personal ice cream makers — H-E-B officials say they don't expect to see Blue Bell back on Texas shelves until September, according to KPRC.  So yeah, the ice cream is on the road, but it most likely won't hit Houston stores until next month. 

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