The little creamery in Brenham has been given a not so little fine for its 2015 listeriosis outbreak that was linked to three deaths and sickening seven other people. A Texas federal court has ordered Blue Bell to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties for shipments of contaminated products.
Blue Bell pleaded guilty in May to two misdemeanor counts of distributing contaminated ice cream products. The $17.25 million fine and forfeiture amount is the largest-ever criminal penalty following a conviction in a food safety case.
“American consumers must be able to trust that the foods they purchase are safe to eat,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The sentence imposed today sends a clear message to food manufacturers that the Department of Justice will take appropriate actions when contaminated food products endanger consumers.”
Texas state officials notified Blue Bell in February 2015 that samples of two ice cream products from the company’s factory in Brenham tested positive for listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous pathogen that can lead to serious illness or death in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, newborns, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.
Blue Bell removed the remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, but the company did not recall the products or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential contamination. Two weeks after receiving notification of the first positive listeria tests, Texas state officials informed Blue Bell that additional state-led testing confirmed listeria in a third product. Blue Bell again chose not to issue any formal notification to customers regarding the positive tests.
In March 2015, tests conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified one of the contaminated products as the source for a strain of listeriosis that sickened five patients at a Kansas hospital. Subsequent tests confirmed listeria contamination in a product made at another Blue Bell facility in Broken Arrow, Okla. The FDA and CDC issued nationwide product recalls in both instances.
The listeria contamination was linked to problems with the hot water supply needed to properly clean equipment and deteriorating factory conditions that could lead to unsanitary water dripping into the product during the manufacturing process. Blue Bell temporarily closed all of its plants in late April 2015 to clean and update the facilities. Since reopening in late 2015, the company has taken significant steps to enhance sanitation processes and enact a program to test products for listeria prior to shipment.