CDC: Blue Bell Had Listeria Problems As Early As 2010

Earlier this week, Blue Bell Creameries recalled all of its products after its ice cream was linked to a listeria outbreak that has killed three people and sickened seven others. Now comes word from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Blue Bell products may have been contaminated for as long as five years.


The CDC traced the bacteria to two of Blue Bell’s factories–one at its headquarters in Brenham, Texas; the other in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. According to CDC foodborne disease expert Robert Tauxe, investigators noticed the link with previously unrelated cases when they probed the deaths of three people in Kansas who died from eating contaminated Blue Bell ice cream at a hospital. The listeria found in one batch of chocolate ice cream found at the hospital didn’t match any of the patients. However, it did match a strain of listeria from six cases in Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas dating back to 2010. Tauxe said that “the match was strong” with the older cases, even though the ice cream found in Kansas had been made fairly recently. It all came from the Oklahoma plant.

So now comes the obvious question–where did the listeria come from? Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told CNN that the bacteria wasn’t in the milk itself, since Blue Bell uses pasteurized milk. She thinks it’s more likely that it came in through nuts and other foods that went into the ice cream. She added that the main reason no one suspected Blue Bell in the earlier cases is that even when there is more than one case of listeriosis, investigators look at deli meats and cheeses before they suspect ice cream.

Once listeria gets into a plant, DeWaal says that it can linger in drains and pipes for years, and the only real way to get rid of it is to “take the equipment apart and clean it.” That’s exactly what Blue Bell is doing now. It shuttered all three of its factories–in Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama–to give them a thorough deep cleaning. Tauxe says this is absolutely the right move. He added that Blue Bell is normally very clean, this discovery “puts the entire ice cream industry on notice” to keep a closer watch for listeria.

Blue Bell president and CEO Paul Kruse, whose family has helmed Blue Bell for almost a century, has promised that his company is committed to doing “the 100 percent right thing.” Part of that effort, he said, is ensuring that all of its products are safe before they return to the shelves across its 23-state footprint. He has also promised to send out samples for testing every day, and improve his employees’ training.

Blue Bell has always taken quality control very seriously. Under its “direct store delivery” system, only its employees–and not franchisees–handle the product from the time it is made to the time it gets in the customer’s hands at the store. Blue Bell’s delivery drivers even go as far as stocking the product themselves rather than trust it to a store’s stock crew. If this is any indication, however, the Kruses may want to take a closer look at their supply chain. After all, if the listeria got into the plants via nuts and other products, they may want to scrutinize the cleanliness of their suppliers.

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.