Blue Bell Hits the Restart Button on Its Operations After Listeria Outbreak
After a listeria outbreak that shut down Blue Bell Ice Cream operations and left three consumers dead, the company has announced a reboot.
Starting April 27, Blue Bell will "embark on an intensive cleaning program," the company said, and retrain employees at all four of its ice cream plants for the next week or so. The reboot will involve enhancing existing preventive measures, teaching hundreds of plant employees new cleaning techniques and making design changes to equipment. All ice cream made during that time will not be for sale to consumers.
"We just needed to set a reset button and get it right," Blue Bell spokesman Joe Robertson told ABC News, adding that they have not yet decided when to resume normal ice cream production.
The 108-year-old ice cream company expanded its earlier recalls this week to include all Blue Bell products. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also announced this week that listeria cases tied to Blue Bell Ice Cream had an illness onset date dating back as far as January 2010, after retrospectively reviewing old cases for the DNA fingerprints. The CDC has confirmed 10 listeria cases tied to Blue Bell in four states. Three of these patients died, according to the CDC.
When the first Blue Bell products tested positive for listeria and the company issued a recall, Robertson said Blue Bell identified the piece of equipment and shut down the whole room of the plant. The company had already recalled 25 ice cream products when a batch of half-gallon chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream tested positive for listeria, too, prompting the complete recall.
"We've always worked to make the very highest quality ice cream," Blue Bell CEO and President Paul Kruse said in a statement. "We intend to make a fresh start and that begins with intensive cleaning and enhanced training. This is a paradigm shifting event at Blue Bell and we want to put in place new systems to drive continuous improvement."
Although most people who are exposed to listeria don't become sick, it can be a very serious illness, said ABC News chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser. It kills about 260 people a year, according to the CDC.
"Ice cream isn't one of those foods that we tended to worry about because of pasteurization, where you heat the milk that would kill listeria," he said. "So theyre going to be looking very hard at these factories to try to figure out what went wrong here."
Although there is a "zero tolerance" policy at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when it comes to listeria, food safety expert Sandra Eskin told ABC News that companies aren't required to test for it -- at least not until the Food Safety Modernization Act is implemented later this year.
Robertson said Blue Bell had been testing for listeria and other bacteria, but it will begin testing even more going forward.
On Thursday, another ice cream company, Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, announced that it was recalling all products after a positive listeria test. In a statement to ABC News, the FDA said it does not believe the outbreaks are related.