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The Blue Bell Recall: How Bad Is It?

As reported yesterday, Blue Bell Ice Cream has recalled all of its products after finding listeria bacteria in multiple facilities and containers.

We spoke with Houston-based personal injury lawyer Scott Callahan, who notes that while recalls are common, one of this scope is exceptional.

"First of all, you have different places and plants where the listeria has been located," he explained. "If it were determined to only be in one particular location or machine, then that could be identified and that line of product could be recalled. When you have a widespread problem in different places at different plants, then a recall of all products is the right thing to do."

Callahan also pointed out that unlike bacteria that can't thrive in cold environments, listeria is an exception. That quality makes it more formidable to combat.

Even with doing a voluntary, product-wide recall, Blue Bell is at risk of third-party lawsuits. "They have to consider civil lawsuits by customers, investors, distributors and stores. Stores who sell this ice cream have to face lost profits and higher operation costs. These are business-interruption losses. Their good name and goodwill have been affected as well."

Llisteria symptoms in the mildest cases can include fever, chills, headaches and general flu-like symptoms, but, depending on the age and health of the person affected, can be much more severe.

We asked Callahan what he would say to consumers who are still considering eating Blue Bell ice cream they have at home. "People who are at risk of severe listeria effects include pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and people whose immune systems are lowered, like someone who's going through chemotherapy. For those people, this is no laughing matter."

Overall, Callahan believes Blue Bell has acted appropriately in doing the recall and ran a much higher risk if it had not done it. He says, "It's important to note that recalls are expensive, but not doing one can be even more expensive. Blue Bell is in a crisis-management mode right now. It's certainly in their interest to protect their customers and protect their brand. How they handle this can make or break the trust they've built with their customers."

Callahan envisions another possible problem that Blue Bell could be facing. "I cringe to even bring this up -- the Blue Bell team working on this has to consider whether or not their officials and management can face criminal charges. If you look at the history of recalls, in some of the more egregious ones, criminal charges were successfully filed. I certainly hope that doesn't happen here."

Some Houston Press readers have noted a sense of betrayal upon hearing that Blue Bell even has different manufacturing plants in other states. Isn't Blue Bell ice cream a Texas product? Can it still be considered a Texas product if it's now being manufactured in other states? Callahan says, "Blue Bell has done a wonderful job in branding itself as a little creamery in the hillside of Brenham. That's what people envision when they think of Blue Bell. When a little creamery grows, they have expand to other facilities. For me, at least, Blue Bell will still always be that little creamery in Brenham."

In related, bizarre news, the Houston Area News and Arrests and The Tribune web sites both report that Humble Independent School District's Board of Trustees actually voted to increase the amount of Blue Bell ice cream they're purchasing. The vote came on April 14, right in the midst of the recall controversy.

About this issue, Callahan says, "Quite frankly, I was in disbelief when I read this. It gives an entirely new meaning to "buy low, sell high." It is quite possibly one of the poorest decisions I've witnessed. I can't imagine the parents of the schoolchildren in Humble supporting what the school board voted on. The recall is designed to protect the very people the Humble school district wants to give this ice cream to. It's extremely poor judgment. I'd be interested in whether Humble parents have caught wind of this yet."

With all these potential factors in play, it will clearly take some time before Blue Bell surmounts all of the potential legal and public relations hurdles associated with -- and still to be generated by -- the recall.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook