Blue Bell Creameries, the ice cream and frozen desserts maker that’s been tainted by a listeria crisis, had “strong evidence” that the bacteria was in its Oklahoma plant as of early 2013, the Houston Chronicle is reporting. According to reports the Chronicle obtained from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Blue Bell’s tests had turned up a “presumptive positive” for listeria on the floors, storage pallets, and other nonfood surfaces of its Oklahoma plant. In 2014, Blue Bell tests also found that the level of coliform bacteria in products exceeded the maximum allowed by the state of Oklahoma. On top of all that, the FDA said water condensation in the plant had been trickling into the company’s frozen sherbet containers and possibly its ice cream during production. So yeah. Gross.
What really looks bad is that Blue Bell was apparently aware of all this, yet took little or no action to clean up the mess. And in light of the latest FDA reports, Blue Bell’s steps to respond to positive listeria tests this year seem plodding. Blue Bell issued its first-ever product recall in 108 years of business in March, after the deaths of three Kansas hospital patients were linked to its ice cream products. But even as it did that and halted operations at the Oklahoma facility, the company maintained that none of the listeria links had been confirmed. Then in late April, Blue Bell announced it was recalling all its products over listeria concerns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention upped its number of Blue Bell listeria cases to 10 and recommended that consumers “do not eat any Blue Bell brand products, and that institutions and retailers do not serve or sell them.” Blue Bell’s CEO Paul Kruse issued a public apology.
Well, now it looks like Blue Bell will need to do a lot more than saying sorry to restore its reputation. The FDA said Blue Bell’s Oklahoma plant had tested positive for listeria on equipment and in products 16 different times between March 2013 and January 2015. Sixteen! Bill Marler, a lawyer and food safety expert, told the Chronicle that Blue Bell’s apparent violations were “as bad as it gets.” (Sixteen!) One hundred and eight years is a long time to build consumer trust. Failing to act on a clear and well-documented consumer health risk is a surefire way to erase it.