“Within days of heralding their products’ return to grocery stores in three states, officials with Blue Bell Creameries LP quietly recalled two flavors of cookie dough ice cream from 10 states because of Listeria concerns.”

– Food Safety News

Blue Bell CreameriesBlue Bell Creameries has become a household name due to its popular ice cream products. The company, which has been in operation for over 100 years, has garnered a reputation that allowed it to expand to 30 states at one point. The company has been lucrative, as well, reporting annual revenue of $680 million in 2014, the year when Blue Bell ice cream was the best-selling brand in the U.S.

However, a series of recalls have company leaders searching for answers. The following is an overview of the problems, and subsequent consequences, of the recalls by Blue Bell Creameries.

2015 Listeria Outbreak and 2016 Recall

In 2015, Blue Bell Creameries issued a recall on a number of its ice cream products. The recall was the first issued by the company since its inception in 1907, and is believed to have stemmed from contaminated product manufactured at a creamery based in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Official reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cited a total of 10 Listeriosis cases in the outbreak. In Kansas, a total of five individuals contracted a rare strain of Listeria monocytogenes. Three of the people died from the illness.

The company immediately initiated a temporary shutdown of the Oklahoma plant and began a sampling program to test for Listeria within all of its facilities. After analyzing the samples, researchers discovered “several positive tests for Listeria in different places and plants.” As a precautionary measure, the company expanded its recall to all products in all of the facilities. A total of nearly 8 million gallons of ice cream were discarded.

Food and Drug Administration Investigations

Subsequent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigations revealed that Blue Bell Creameries had “failed to follow standard practices to prevent contamination.” Two years before the recalls, Blue Bell Creameries “repeatedly found” listeria at its Broken Arrow facility. FDA documents cite that these problems were overlooked in all three of its main production plants, and that the company lacked a “food safety culture.”

In an 11-page report, FDA investigators cited 10 occasions, or “observations,” that detailed the unsanitary conditions within the Oklahoma production facility. Investigators stated that the facility failed to institute conditions and controls to minimize the potential for contamination, as well as to perform basic microbial testing to identify sanitation failures. Investigators detailed eight other violations, ranging from unsanitary behavior involving employees to an unsatisfactory temperature range for storing products. As a result of this investigation, company officials were required to discontinue operations at the plant.

Blue Bell Workforce Reduced

In the process of shutting down its primary facilities, Blue Bell began to lay off and furlough workers. On May 14, 2015, the company announced that 2,850 employees would be laid off or furloughed pending the completion of a cleanup and repair of its facilities. Remarkably, this was the first time in its history that the company had laid off or furloughed workers.

Additionally, in order to slash costs associated with the cleanup and repair efforts, Blue Bell reduced the hourly wages of approximately 1,050 employees.

At all four of its production facilities, the cleanup and repair efforts lasted several months. In addition to these efforts, the company invested in a revised and revamped food safety inspection system. In July 2015, the company resumed operations in one of its four facilities. The company’s Alabama production facility resumed operations at the end of 2015.

In September 2016, Blue Bell once again initiated a recall due to potential listeria concerns. Company officials issued a statement, stating the recall was instituted “out of an abundance of caution.” The company stated that the listeria contamination can be traced to one of its suppliers of edible cookie dough.

To date, the company has voluntarily recalled two flavors of cookie dough ice cream that were distributed to 10 different states. Blue Bell Creameries is currently coordinating with the FDA to successfully execute the voluntary recall.

Consequences of the Recalls

As with any public health crisis that involves multiple fatalities, increased scrutiny is placed on those responsible. First, the overall economic impact on the company is likely to be tremendous. As Blue Bell is a privately owned company, and hence doesn’t release public financial statements, it is difficult to use quantitative measures. However, lost sales, discarded product, the development of new processes, and other miscellaneous expenses have likely cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

Whether or not the reports about Blue Bell are warranted, public perception concerning food safety is the only aspect that ultimately matters. Indeed, Blue Bell Creameries has a long road ahead.